(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The April 19, 1995, bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City activated in many Americans the same habits of mind as did the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy. As Norman Mailer puts it in his superb biographical study of the young man who either acted alone or was a patsy in the Kennedy killing:

Many Americans moved into the wild with no more than the strength of their imaginations. When the frontier was finally closed, imagination inevitably turned into paranoia (which can be described, after all, as the enforced enclosure of imagination—its artistic form is a scenario) and, lo, there where the westward expansion stopped on the shores of the Pacific grew Hollywood. . . . By the late Fifties and early Sixties, a good many of these scenarios had chosen anti-Communism for their theme—the American imagination saw a Red menace under every bed including Marina Oswald’s.

Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery is first a not-so-tacit rebuke to the Warren Commission, whose a priori task Mailer rightly claims was to decide that Oswald acted alone, since to entertain any other possibility would be to open a Pandora’s box of dirty laundry in the U.S. intelligence services and government. The mere fact that after thirty-two years a writer of Mailer’s stature published yet another book on the assassination constitutes the final nail in the coffin of the Warren Commission Report, published by Bantam Books less than a year after the fact and whose back cover proclaims it to be “the truth behind the most shocking crime of the century!”

In “The Real Meaning of the Right Wing in America,” an essay collected in The Presidential Papers (1964), many of whose themes and topicsOswald’s Tale revisits, Mailer wrote: “Indeed, so long as there is a cold war, there are no politics of consequence in America. It matters less each year which party holds the power.” By the early 1990’s, the Cold War had ended, the American penchant for paranoid scenarios was casting about for new themes, and politics of consequence were reemerging as hostile partisans of ever more deeply entrenched political positions sought new villains-cum-scapegoats. The loose assortment of private paramilitary groups that quickly became notorious in April, 1995, as “the militias” seemed to believe that the federal government and the United Nations were conspiring to deny them their inalienable rights. Many other Americans decried “the militias” as the latest menace to society—accusing them, most disingenuously, of paranoia. Worth bearing in mind is Mailer’s claim (in The Presidential Papers) that “the crucial characteristic of modern totalitarianism is that it is a moral disease which divorces us from guilt.”

As Oswald’s Tale illustrates brilliantly, mere factual truth is an irrelevance, and one denies this only when opting for existential timidity over an acceptance of the pervasive ambiguity that is inherent in the world. No amount of ridicule or reassurance ever will change the mind of a conspiracy theorist, nor on the other hand will Americans ever know beyond doubt who in addition to or other than Oswald may have conspired to assassinate Kennedy. “It is worth remembering that in life, as in other mysteries, there are no answers, only questions, but part of the pleasure of intellection is to refine the question, or discover a new one,” Mailer reminds readers. “It is analogous to the fact that there are no facts—only the mode of our approach to what we call facts.”

Mailer brings to his study the hard-won wisdom of a mature and near-great novelist, and his approach demonstrates that crucial to any piece of writing is what the writer himself brings to his task: his personal background, political or factual assumptions, prose style, and decisions on what to include and omit. As elsewhere in his writings, Mailer shows himself to be a prodigious reader as well as a bold and subtle thinker and a narrative artist of the first order. With masterful self-assurance, he realigns extracts from several earlier books on the assassination, combining them with his own research and speculation to arrive at his goal: a narrative that touches, though scarcely solves, the mystery of Oswald’s identity and motivations. One must admire the sheer audacity, so characteristic of Mailer; yet again he demonstrates that the biggest writers are the ones who choose and master the biggest topics....

(The entire section is 1824 words.)