D.H. Lawrence once said that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” James Ellroy took this statement literally in “American Tabloid,” populating his alternative history of the Kennedy assassination with dead-eyed sociopaths and rapid-fire snatches of tough-guy banter. Don DeLillo takes a different tack in “Libra,” a taut historical thriller less concerned with murder than with the power of desire to influence the historical record. In sentences wound so tight they threaten to spring from the page, DeLillo jumps from the obscure CIA analyst trying to make sense of the Kennedy assassination to an oddball cast of doomed and dreamy characters, everyone trying desperately to rise above desperate circumstances.
There’s Lee’s mother Marguerite, forever begging for understanding: first from truant officers and social workers, then policemen and judges, and in the final analysis directly to the reader, to posterity itself. There are the disgruntled CIA operatives – Win Everett, Lawrence Parmenter, and T.J. Mackey – each harboring an almost religious hatred of Castro (and now Kennedy) after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. There’s ex G-man Guy Banister, playing at detective in New Orleans alongside the strange, cancer-stricken shadow of David Ferrie. In Dallas there are silk-suited Mafiosi and the gorgeous train-wreck of a human being Jack Ruby, owner of the Carousel Club, where burlesque dancers like Baby LeGrand sleepwalk through boozy strip routines and dream of other, better lives.
And then there’s Lee, of course, the itinerant maladroit at the heart of the story. Sullen and awkward, in thrall to the Communist utopia promised in the writings of Marx and Engels, Lee Harvey Oswald cultivates “a far mean streak of independence brought on by neglect.” Abandoned by his father as a child, then raised in squalid, too-tight quarters with his mother Marguerite, Lee drops first out of school, then society, and finally America altogether – fleeing his post in the Army in a misguided attempt at emigrating to Russia.
Hovering over the narrative is Nicholas Branch, the CIA analyst assigned the Sisyphean task of piecing together the past, a job he quickly understands is an exercise in futility:
“He takes refuge in his notes. The notes are becoming an end in themselves. Branch has decided it is premature to make a serious effort to turn these notes into coherent history. Maybe it will always be premature. Because the data keeps coming. Because new lives enter the record all the time. The past is changing as he writes.”
Unlike Branch, DeLillo isn’t cowed by the sheer volume of data surrounding the Kennedy assassination. He is making a serious effort at understanding the forces that converged on Dallas during the “seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.” He knows, though, that focusing too closely on the particulars – the who and what and where and when – might blind the reader to the more important question … the why behind the plot. Brief scenes hint at the specifics (which we are intimately familiar with, anyway), while carefully-crafted metaphor and distinct, quirky characterization breathe life into this cast of long-dead characters.
By highlighting the feelings over the facts, “Libra” offers the reader a sort of emotional catharsis which, in the final analysis, makes sense out of the whole mess.
Everyone here wants to be heard, to make some mark on history. “Happiness,” Lee writes, “is taking part in the struggle, where there is no borderline between one’s own personal world, and the world in general.” And yet they are often frustrated in their pursuits: dragged down by the drudgery of daily life, frustrated by careers gone awry, hobbled by addiction or pride or stupidity. And so they tell themselves stories – latching onto what might have been, wondering privately what might still be. Continually trying to reinvent themselves with narrative. Sometimes the gaps between these private desires and objective reality can be written off as ambition. Other times they’re sad, bordering on delusional. “But idealists,” muses a Russian KGB agent about Lee, “are unpredictable. They tend to be the ones who turn bitter overnight, deceived by the lies they’ve told themselves.”
This back and forth between observable fact and the private, intangible fictions we entertain – between what is and what might-have-been – is the narrative fuel propelling DeLillo’s plot. Into the space existing between make-believe and reality steps the conspiracy: to stage an assassination attempt on Kennedy – a “spectacular miss” – that will galvanize political support for another invasion of Cuba. Nobody knows all of the details, obscured by layers of bureaucracy and double-talk designed to protect the participants from accountability. “A man needed special experience and insight to work true meanings out of certain remarks … it was like a class project in the structure of reality.”
And like all plots, there is blood waiting for the reader in the end:
“There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death. A plot in fiction, he believed, is the way we localize the force of the death outside the book, play it off, contain it.”
“Libra” illustrates the viral power of collective desire, the toxic effects that our narcissistic delusions can have once loosed in the real world. In it, DeLillo has captured an essential aspect of the American soul, introducing us to a cast – not of stoic, isolated killers – but of stubborn storytellers, dreaming big.
According to DeLillo’s logic, however, the yarns we tell tend to end in murder.
Killers, then. Once removed.