Drawn again to the '60s, this time to the tragedy of Dallas in November 1963, Mailer and literary investigator-book packager Larry Schiller (who worked with the author on The Executioner's Song) sift through the magnified detritus of Lee Harvey Oswald's life. Here, spread across nearly 800 pages, are records of previously secret KGB wiretaps from Oswald's 1959-62 sojourn in the Soviet Union; the musings today of his still-bitter widow, Marina; the 26-volume Warren Commission report; and hundreds of voluble witnesses.
But those who expect Mailer, now 72, to dazzle with fiery polemic as he did in The Armies of the Night will be disappointed. Waving off conspiracy theories as mere media-hyped horseflies, Mailer stalks more philosophical—and pathological—game. His purpose, he states, is to show "that the sudden death of a man as large in his possibilities as John Fitzgerald Kennedy is more tolerable if we can perceive his killer as tragic rather than absurd." Mailer reminds us that Oswald grew up fatherless, was bathed by his mother until the age of 12, was brilliant but severely handicapped by dyslexia, was a sly and lazy manual laborer, a wife beater and a mediocre marksman. What most intrigues is the assassin's grandiosity. "The only matter unsettled is whether he was working for any service larger than the power centers in the privacy of his mind," writes Mailer. Thankfully, in the second half of this hefty tome, the Mailer who can skewer with mischievous imagery finally comes roaring out of the nonfiction closet. The Warren report is "a dead whale decomposing on a beach" and "Every gun lover is a closet mystic." Did Oswald act alone? Mailer suggests that he did. But readers of this sometimes sluggish and often rewarding investigation may be less sure. After all, the subtitle of Oswald's Tale is An American Mystery. (Random House, $30)