Review of Libra by Don Delillo
By: Michael A. Arnold

The 1960s was really intense, and a lot of things happened. The whole world was an ideological battleground between the Soviet Union and the United States, both sides openly hostile to each other – and both had the most powerful weapons ever build by humans. The Cuban Missile Crisis was in 1962, the closest the world has come to a nuclear exchange which would (at least) destroy the northern hemisphere. By the end of 1963, the president of the USA, John F. Kennedy, had been shot and killed by the Communist-sympathizing Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas Texas.

Thankfully for us, none of this lead to the apocalypse that everyone living through the Cold War was sure would come. The Vietnam war, which was already being fought at the beginning of the decade, did heat up over the next few years, but nothing quite as serious as the Cuban Missile Crisis would happen for a while. The world had time to breathe and figure out what exactly happened. Why was Kennedy killed by Oswald? Why did Jack Ruby kill Oswald shortly after? And how could he have done that, in the basement of a police station? There has been a lot of questions around what happened in Dallas, and a lot of conspiracy theories. These conspiracy theories continue to be popular because it is a day that continues to haunt our imaginations.

On the forth of February 2022, the Library of America announced the planned releases of a few books for the fall of the year. One of those books was a collection of three novels by the Postmodernist author Don Delillo, including his 1988 novel Libra which is about the Kennedy assassination. It is best described as a fictionalized biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, exploring his character and life in a narrative that starts with a childhood in New York, life in the US Marines, his defection the Soviet Union, a return to America and his life between Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana. Behind all of this is the growing tension between the Communist east and Capitalist west.

Obviously, this is not a novel with a twist ending, and we cannot blandly identify with Oswald, but instead we might be able to empathize with him (maybe not sympathize) – or at least understand him. It seems hoped that as we read this novel we might appreciate something of the real Oswald's mental state and see the reasons behind his actions. The Oswald presented in his book is not a monster, and he is certainly not the idiot the real Oswald is sometimes presented as. This book is mature, in a way not a lot of books tend to be.

It is very clear, from the amount of casual detail that fills these pages, that Delillo did a lot of research on both Oswald and the times. Snatches of colorful detail are thrown around so naturally that it is very easy to picture the scenes and world Delillo is creating. Such details can allow you to not just imagine what is happening but feel it too. You can almost taste the sweaty heat of the New Orleans streets, or the cold metal of the New York subways as the characters talk with each other – not talk to each other. This is one of Delillo's major strengths as an author, he has a great mastery of tone and subtly making you sense the air in the room as characters have a conversation that under the surface is really an argument.

There is a lot of under the surface arguing in this book, especially when Oswald is alone with himself – which happens often. This book's Oswald is a natural loner, someone who would ride the subways of his native New York for hours because he had few if any friends, meaning the beginning of this book is less the portrait of a would be killer and more of a sad and isolated young person. This is someone who is trying to make sense of a life that, given his modest background, seems hostile and unsympathetic toward him – but he is intelligent, and a veracious reader. When Oswald discovers the writings of Karl Marx he becomes, it seems, an ardent communist – but we really do have to wonder if this is because he actually believes in Marxism or if it is just a way to rebel against society.

As time goes on, and Oswald gets older, he enlists in the marines. This part of the novel is very different. Oswald is made fun of, and he is still an outsider in an incredibly strict and regimented world, but there are moments where you get the sense he is actually enjoying himself for the first time – especially when he is stationed to Japan. At one point he goes for a night out in Tokyo with friends, a scene which does a lot to show other sides of his character. This part of the novel is not idyllic however, there is a melancholia forever in the background that haunts the character. You really get the impression that Oswald was never really happy to be anywhere.

As the book moves toward its end the narrative starts to feel a bit less stable. Scenes and the years seem to float by at an increasingly frantic pace. There are a lot of details about Oswald in the Free Cuba movement, and a confused section in Mexico City. But it seems history will always find a way to get us to where we need to be, and this final section is extremely well written as a possible account of what lead to the Kennedy assassination. This is the product of a master author working to write the best book possible with this material. While there are fictional characters here, and parts of the plot that are just speculative, the majority of what is here is not just historically authentic, it is also convincing.

We may not ever know everything that happened on that day in Dallas, or the exact reason why Kennedy was killed. This is not to suggest some kind of larger conspiracy; this is simply the nature of history. It tends to evaporate, and what lingers behind is so much steam. Even events as recently as the 1960s will never be completely understood. Novels like Delillo's Libra remind us that behind the famous and infamous names, there are real people who once were just normal members of society. Also, that anyone can be holding some deep rooted loneliness and unhappiness inside, which can turn them onto some dark and frightening roads. There is probably a balance, like the name Libra suggests, between the light and the darkness in all of us, and that balance is always being tested. Most of us never let the scales tip one way or the other, like the Lee Harvey Oswalds of the world. Books like this one can help remind us that whatever it is that does that, we all have it – we are all capable of great things: great does not necessarily mean good.

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