(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In Libra, a novel that creates a plausible reading of the Kennedy assassination, the narrative center inevitably belongs to Lee Harvey Oswald, the alienated Nobody fed on tough-guy fantasies that he ingests without care from television and film and who, at age twenty-four, is determined to become part of history. In Libra, DeLillo meticulously recreates a believable Oswald, carefully balancing the conflicting extremes of the historic Oswald, specifically, his commitments to both the Left and the Right, his allegiance to the Soviet Union (he was a Soviet defector), and his allegiance to the United States (he was a Marine). Oswald’s astronomical sign, Libra, serves as DeLillo’s metaphor. Unlike others who have tackled the events in Dallas since the Warren Commission, DeLillo is not interested in solving the shooting of the president so much as examining the process of solution itself, how history becomes convincing narrative, how facts produce fictions.

In DeLillo’s scenario, the assassination begins as a charade assassination, a designed near-miss on the president’s motorcade that would convince the country to reconsider the threat from Cuba. That designed near-miss escalates in the hands of disgruntled Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents from the Bay of Pigs debacle into the actual assassination in Dallas. Oswald is a perfect dupe for the emerging plotters, the credible lone gunman necessary for the complex intrigue.


(The entire section is 561 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Libra is Don DeLillo’s fictional re-creation of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy, and of the conspiracy that many believe lay behind the assassination.

DeLillo has woven his novel from three major strands. The first is the story of Oswald himself, from his childhood in New York City until his death at the hands of Jack Ruby. The second strand follows the growth of a conspiracy to commit some act that will focus the anger of the U.S. government on Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The plot is originally intended to fail; as DeLillo notes, however, “There is a tendency of plots to move toward death.” In the third and simplest strand of the novel, retired CIA analyst Nicholas Branch is trying years later to write a classified history of what took place.

As Libra opens, young Lee Harvey Oswald is living in the Bronx with his widowed mother, Marguerite Oswald. Her efforts at finding another husband have failed, as have her attempts to make a home with relatives. In what will become a familiar pattern, Lee and his mother always seem to be on the move to increasingly cheaper apartments. Eventually, mother and son return to New Orleans. Lee was born there, and Marguerite’s sister still lives there, but once again there seems to be no home for them. Along the way, Lee discovers Marxism, which offers him an explanation for his marginalized situation in society, but he also enlists in the Marines. He is assigned to Atsugi Naval Air Station in Japan, from which U2 spy flights are launched over the Soviet Union. In Japan, he also begins an affair and makes contact with Soviet agents, expressing his belief in Marxism and offering to defect.

When he learns that his unit is scheduled to leave Japan, Lee shoots himself in the arm in a vain attempt to remain behind. A second incident—a fight with a sergeant—earns him a court martial and a brief sentence in the brig.

When Marguerite suffers a minor accident, Lee secures an early separation from the Marines. Rather than...

(The entire section is 844 words.)