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The Essential JFK Books

The Essential JFK Books

Oswald’s Tale
By Norman Mailer

One of the rare books by Norman Mailer that got good reviews and sold poorly. British critics were more enthusiastic than their American counterparts. Mailer’s attempt to make Oswald if not sympathetic at least human did appall many on this side of the Atlantic. But Andrew O’Hagan praised Mailer’s fictional account of “Oswald’s struggle to become a man—to become an important and effective male character—as the foundation of much of his adult distress …” Allen Massie found Mailer’s Oswald, “both likeable and repulsive; to be pitied and feared. He is in many ways … like the young Hitler revealed in Mein Kampf.”

Mailer disappointed numerous conspiracy theorists by coming to the conclusion that, as Mailer’s biographer J. Michael Lennon put it,  Mailer chose “no conspiracy, and a complex Oswald; a man dealt a bad hand, in no way heroic, but bold, idealistic in a twisted way, and sympathetic.”

Thomas Powers spoke for many American critics in the New York Times Book Review, where he wrote, “I admire Mailer for his effort to understand Oswald, but at some level I feel invited to place a sympathetic arm around the killer’s shoulder. I’m not about to do it.”  Nonetheless, most rank Mailer’s foray into Kennedy assassination lit second only to Don DeLillo’s.

Dallas 1963
By Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis

You might think that fifty years after JFK’s death there is nothing new to be written about the most shocking American murder since Lincoln’s assassination. Minutaglio and Davis have mined fresh material from the city of Dallas as it was half a century ago, a world creates by such leading citizens as billionaire oil baron H.L. Hunt, who was rumored to have produced more oil during World War II than all the Axis powerscombined; Stanley Marcus, a Harvard educated marketing genius who, it was said, “brought mink coats to Texas;” and Edwin A. Walker, a flamboyant and controversial infantry commander who believed that America’s leading journalists—Walter Lippman, Edward R. Murrow, and Eric Savareid—were “convinced Communists.”

The leader of the country’s largest Baptist congregation and rock bed segregationist. W. A. Criswell, who “surrounds things in Biblical inviolability;” and publisher of the Dallas Morning News, Ted Dealey, the self-proclaimed protector of “old Dallas” and of “the Dallas way of doing things.”  (His family name lives in infamy as it adorns the plaza where Kennedy was shot.)

These and many others just as extreme helped create an atmosphere rife with emotion and looking for an event to give focus to their passions. A month before Kennedy was shot, Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was assaulted in Dallas. In retrospect it’s easy to see why so many warned JFK not to go to Dallas; the toxic mix of radical ideologies now make the assassination seem almost inevitable and explains, perhaps for the first time, the environment that spawned a plethora of conspiracy theories.

Libra
By Don DeLillo

In an author’s note at the end of Libra, Don DeLillo writes that he has made “No attempt to furnish factual answers to any questions raised by the assassination.” In other words, this is a novel and does purport to solve any of the myriad mysteries surrounding the killing of JFK.  But as a novel, Libra can go places where fact cannot go.

Published close to the 25th anniversary of the assassination, DeLillo, starting from the know facts available from the Warren Commission’s report, court records and newspaper and magazine investigations, creates interior voices for the principal characters. He arrives at an explanation for the killing of the President far different from the official one presented by the Warren Commission, but one which ultimately depend on conspiracy.

Anne Tyler, reviewing Libra for the New York Times, wrote, “Lee Harvey Oswald  has always seemed both much-too-familiar (his rabbity, weak-jawed face staring out of the grimmer sections of every city in America) and endlessly mysterious. To Mr. DeLillo’s credit, that ambiguity is kept alive in Libra. It may even be heightened, because the portrait is so intimate—Oswald washing dishes, Oswald playing with his baby, Oswald cuffing his wife—and he still manages from time to time to surprise us.  Oswald is a loser, a loner, pathetic and self-aggrandizing, one of those people who seize crazily upon the significance of every insignificant coincidence …”

Libra, then, is a painstakingly in-depth portrait of a shallow man who changed the world and the chaos that followed in his wake.

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