Libra, by Don Delillo.
(New York: Viking, 1988.)

Book review by Rob Couteau





Published in:
Arete: Forum For Thought,
March / April 1989 (CA: San Diego)

Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Libra, is named after the astrological sign symbolizing balance and harmony. Here, the author of End Zone and White Noise has created “a work of the imagination” based on the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and the events surrounding President Kennedy’s assassination. Libra was Oswald’s sun sign, and, through the author’s masterly treatment, it serves to symbolize Oswald’s precarious search for balance in American society: a search that ends with a tilting of the scales toward excess and destruction.

In one sense, there’s nothing new in the plot. DeLillo synthesizes elements of various conspiracy theories, including the involvement of the Mafia, anti-Castro forces, and a renegade CIA faction (each possessing a motivation and a means of killing the president). What’s unique in DeLillo’s treatment is the day-to-day interweaving of character, scene, and setting: the usual challenge of the novel, but here combined with an additional problem: believably reconstructing scenes involving well-known historical figures. Through the author’s artful rendering of various stages of Oswald’s life (e.g., a twelve-year-old Oswald talking with his mother; an adult Oswald stationed with his fellow Marines at a naval base in Japan), we come to believe in this strange character who desperately searches for the meaning of life.

We follow his odyssey as he serves in the brutal American military; works in a bleak Russian factory during a chilling winter; and interacts with shadowy CIA men. As he sinks to murkier depths, we witness a troubling vision of America: one that includes the enormous clandestine intelligence network that spawned Oswald and that found a final place for him, as a patsy in the president’s murder.

While DeLillo hardly fleshes out his portrait of Kennedy (correctly assuming that the reader’s familiarity with him hardly necessitates it), he creates a complex and convincing Oswald. One feels well acquainted with him partly because DeLillo renders him as a “type” that we’ve seen before: he desperately wants to change the world, but he can’t hold a job. He yearns for a utopian society of decency and equality, yet he beats his wife. He’s an avid reader who devours Marx and Engels as well as James Bond novels (once he learns the latter are the president’s favorite), but when he writes his own “historic” diary he’s unable to compose a simple declarative sentence.

Oswald possesses a smart-aleck smirk, a jaunty yet nervous bounce in his stride. He has much to offer the world, yet he lacks the education, the training, the right opportunity. He’s a rolling stone bounding from place to place, all the while skittering to lower levels.

Finally, he defects to the Soviet Union and works in a dreary factory where his potential for greatness remains undernourished. He tells the Russians what little he knows about the U-2 spy plane; afterward, pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down, and Oswald is called in to identify him. He’s uncertain if the man is actually Powers, but once Oswald has served his purpose he’s shipped back to the factory. Disillusioned, he returns to the U.S. where his discharge from the Marines has been changed to dishonorable. The FBI nags him; his wife laments Mother Russia; his boss fires him for incompetence. He attempts to enter Cuba via Mexico, but he’s refused at the Cuban Embassy. Eventually, he runs out of places to turn.

Oswald is portrayed as an antihero who effuses an air of inevitable tragedy. Besides being a victim of powerful secret forces, he also personifies a larger American flaw. Behind the exuberant, megalomaniacal “can-do” facade of the Kennedys, we encounter a backdoor plexus of power and corruption running throughout the land. It remains hidden from the populace until they’re awoken with the crack of a gunshot, fired at the president.

With Oswald we have the first visage emerging from this clandestine network, and, upon seeing it, we’re somewhat aghast: a young man in a T-shirt with a self-conscious sparkle in his eye, most remembered for a pouting grimace of despair just before his own assassination.

DeLillo follows the story through to the end, as a wave of discord ripples across the nation and mourning for the president commences. He succinctly reworks the historical material, re-creating the characters who investigate Oswald, such as Win Everett, Larry Parmenter, and T. J. Mackey: renegade CIA men involved in an intricate plot to kill J.F.K.

They wanted a name, a face, a bodily frame they might use to extend their fiction into the world. Everett had decided he wanted one figure to be slightly more visible than the others, a man the investigation might center on, someone who would be trailed and possibly apprehended. Three or four shooters would vanish completely, leaving scant traces ... then one other figure, one slightly clearer image, perhaps abandoned in his sniper’s perch to find his own way out, to be trailed, found, possibly killed by the Secret Service, FBI or local police. Whatever protocol demands.

As in Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Empire, the fusing of history and imagination serves to generate a unique and terrifying portrait.

Although he’s only a minor character in Libra, CIA researcher Nicholas Branch emerges as one of the most intriguing figures in the book. Serving as a counterpoint to all the reimagining, Branch is so burdened with the assassination’s cold, hard facts that his imagination is nearly short-circuited. He’s sequestered in his “room of theories,” writing a “secret history of the assassination,” sorting through statistics, lists, diagrams, and the often-pointless miscellany related to Kennedy’s murder.

Branch is besieged by a hefty supply of material from the agency’s invisible “Curator”: a man he’s never met and whom he doubts he ever will meet. He ponders a “roster of the dead”: a long list of “people linked to Lee H. Oswald, people linked to Jack Ruby, all conveniently and suggestively dead.” He admits: “There is endless suggestiveness.” He meditates: “There is the language of the manner of death. Shot in back of head. Died of cut throat. Shot in police station.”

The documentation is too extensive to ponder long upon any one thing. “The FBI’s papers on the assassination are here, 125,000 papers, no end of dread and woe.” The Curator even sends him “Jack Ruby’s mother’s dental chart” and “detailed descriptions of the dreams of eyewitnesses following the assassination,” as well as a “microphotograph of three strands of Lee H. Oswald’s pubic hair.” Branch symbolizes America’s obsession with facts: facts lacking any trace of human relationship; facts that fail to reveal any deeper meaning; facts that need to be infused with creative imagination.

The transformation of fact into a wholly other creation is the “point” of all art, as well as its point of departure: its stepping-stone from the “real” into the transcendental. The reader’s imagination is stirred by Libra; one is tempted to seek a balance as the scales tilt this way and that, propelling us beyond the merely historical and transporting us to a strange new terrain.


Updated: 11 August 2011 | All text Copyright © 2011 | Rob Couteau | key words: literature book reviews of novels literary by Rob Couteau expatriate writers in Paris Libra Don Delillo