Libra by Don DeLillo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Like Mario Vargas Llosa's La Fiesta del Chivo, Libra is a chillingly realistic novel that re-imagines and reconstructs a famous magnicide. But the more mysterious circumstances of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the particular obsessions of Don DeLillo, make this a very different book from Vargas Llosa's telling of the killing of Rafael Trujillo.
According to DeLillo (through his stand-in character, Nicholas Branch), “the conspiracy against the President was a rambling affair that succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance.” Many people with different motives were out to get Kennedy, from right-wing Aryan-nation types to non-ideological drifters desperate to leave a mark on history, but (in this version) the most systematic pursuers were people who blamed him for the “loss” of Cuba and thought that his elimination would help them get that country back. These included embittered CIA cast-offs, mobsters, investors, and Cuban exile terrorists. You get the impression that even if they'd missed in Dallas, somebody was going to get JFK as long as he insisted on riding in an open car.
DeLillo is fascinated by the narratives we make up to explain ourselves and the world around us. Mostly he is fascinated by those with the weirdest and most complicated narratives, narratives that need frequent adjustment because they keep bumping into contradictory realities. Lee Oswald struggles to persuade himself that he is on to some secret understanding of the world, gained from laborious reading (because he's dyslexic). Jack Ruby has convinced himself that he must always be a defender of the Jews and works very hard to silence his own suspicions that he may be homosexual. The rogue ex-CIA men, outwardly very calm, have an absolutely loony interpretation of history and their role in it. The most sensible character is Marina, Oswald's Russian wife, who can't take seriously any of her husband's elaborate poses and just wants him to teach her English and help her and their baby daughters survive in what for her is a strange new world.
DeLillo has a very great novelistic strength that Vargas Llosa also exhibits (though more in the Peruvian novels than in Chivo): pitch-perfect dialogue. Ruby's scenes are the best. He is a club owner, big spender and always on the brink of bankruptcy. His conversations with himself, his strip-teasers, a mobster associate from whom he's seeking a loan, his feckless male roommate, and the cops he loves (he's always taking them big, cholesterol-laden sandwiches) are hilarious, fragmented, contradictory, and utterly believable. In fact, my one complaint about the book is that we have to wait too long for Ruby to appear. Here's a sample, from his meeting with Tony Astorina, chauffeur for the mobster:
"Jack, I come by here for old time."
"We used to swim on the Capri roof."
"I'm saying. I didn't come by for the coffee."
"Tony. I appreciate."
"I come by because we go back together."
"We got laid in adjoining rooms."
--Etc. It's wonderful.
We can't know whether or to what extent DeLillo's reconstruction of the messy, haphazard but ultimately successful plot to kill President John F. Kennedy is accurate, but it certainly is plausible. And it does create a coherent narrative that DeLillo offers as a “refuge,” “a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years.” (From the “Author's Note” at end of book.)
P.S.: I read the book and wrote this review years ago; what brought it back to mind is my reading of Balzac, whose panoramic view of the social world and his ear for quirky dialogue reminded me especially of DeLillo (and maybe Vargas Llosa). I hope to develop these reflections on the sociological view in fiction in a future essay.
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