The assassination of John F. Kennedy was an event that continues to grip the hearts and minds of those who remember it. In the years since Kennedy’s death in 1963, the persistent rumors of a conspiracy behind his murder have grown in scope and apparent likelihood. Twenty-five years after the assassination, polls indicated that—despite the findings of the Warren Commission—the majority of the American people no longer believed that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. The Mafia, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Fidel Castro, and Texas oil men all came in for their share of close scrutiny in the case, while books and articles by assassination theorists kept the mystery surrounding the president’s death very much in the public eye.
With Libra, novelist Don DeLillo explores the event which marked the true beginning of the 1960’s and has so dominated the American psyche, seeking insights into American society in a fictionalized account of the assassination. His focus is not Kennedy but Oswald, the loner and misfit whose subsequent murder by Jack Ruby, two days after the shooting, sealed forever a crucial link to the truth behind the case. Making no claim to be anything other than “a work of imagination,” as DeLillo terms it in his author’s note, Libra invents characters and even deliberately departs from the factual record on occasion. DeLillo delves deeply into Oswald’s thoughts and feelings as he moves through his life toward the moment when his path will intersect, fatally, with Kennedy’s. DeLillo’s objective is not the formulation of a new conspiracy theory but rather a meditation on the larger significance of an interweaving of seemingly unrelated events which will culminate in a national tragedy.
The format DeLillo chooses for his story consists of three narrative lines, one chronicling Oswald’s life, another tracing the development of a convoluted plot against the president, formulated by rogue CIA agents, and the third describing the long, obsessive investigation of the case by Nicholas Branch, a retired CIA agent assigned to write a secret report on the assassination for the agency. Although the most predictable approach would have been to use Branch as a framing device, with the rest of the story growing out of his discoveries, DeLillo uses him instead as a jumping-off point, a lone representative of all conspiracy theorists and of the American people as well, shut in his tiny room awash in a sea of fragmented information, minutiae, and half-truths. Branch provides the book’s overview, its sense of historical perspective, as well as its follow-up on the lives of those involved in the conspiracy, most of whom have since died under questionable circumstances. Branch’s despair at the volumes of often-conflicting information he has accumulated echoes the frustration of a nation stunned and disillusioned by the clouded facts surrounding a key moment in its history.
The book’s two remaining narrative lines are told from multiple points of view. The development of the assassination plot, in particular, shifts from character to character as it grows and twists toward its bloody conclusion. The climate that gives rise to the conspiracy is the mood of anger and disappointment among those CIA agents most directly involved in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy’s failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. The conspiracy is not sanctioned by the CIA as a whole but is instead the plan of several agents working independently on a scheme to override what they view as Kennedy’s new, conciliatory attitude toward the Cuban leader.
In its initial phase, the plan calls for an assassination attempt which will fail. As devised by Walter “Win” Everett, Jr., a disgraced agent relegated to teaching in a Texas women’s college, the plot turns on the idea not of killing Kennedy but of laying a trail of evidence which will focus blame for an unsuccessful attempt on Castro, thus leading to a new hard line against the Cuban Communist regime. Everett devises an imaginary assassin whose trail will lead to Castro’s door—a shadowy figure who becomes redundant when the conspirators discover Lee Harvey Oswald, a man who could be their fictional assassin come to life. Everett’s plan is given a deadly twist, however, by T. J. Mackey, a freewheeling, maverick agent with ties to anti-Castro Cuban refugees, who decides that an attempt is not enough—Kennedy must die in the shooting.
It is Libra’s third narrative line that forms the heart of DeLillo’s story. In his masterful reconstruction of Oswald’s life he creates a complex and troubling portrait of a lifelong misfit that has a startling ring of truth, despite its fictional underpinnings. DeLillo’s psychological depiction of Oswald incorporates the odd, disjointed facts that are...