Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Crime of His Time

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Crime of His Time

Article excerpt

So, comes now Norman Mailer in the year 1995, to the High Court of Public Opinion, as he inevitably must, to wrestle with the tantalizing and sublime mystery of Lee Harvey Oswald. His pleading is entitled, Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery.

Could it be otherwise for the man who took it upon himself to chronicle and interpret the zeitgeist of the American 1960s than to light at last--thirty-two years after the fact--on the subject matter that, perhaps more than any other, determined the very nature of the zeitgeist? We are talking, of course, of that pinpoint moment, just before 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas when everything changed forever. It took some time for this reality to sink in, for the march of history to catch up with the moment, but once it did, it caught up with a holy vengeance; a vengeance of near biblical proportions. The perceived cover-ups of CIA involvement in the murder, of Mafia involvement, of shady corporation involvement, the performance of the ham-handed Warren Commission, the newfound skepticism of government motives, and a president who felt a need to finish what his predecessor had begun in Southeast Asia, all contributed toward blowing out the foundations upon which a generation was built and substituted the flimsiest of materials. Skepticism regarding the Warren Report became its own litmus test of intellectual seriousness.

But for the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and the ascendancy of Lyndon Baines Johnson, how different it all might have been, how different we all might have been--the Butterfly Effect redoubling on itself down through the decades.

I came in on the trailing edge of that generation: children of the 1960s who grew up idealistic enough to believe that anything was possible and cynical enough to believe that nothing was true. It is from that background that I come to this examination, as well as from my perspectives as a Mailer devotee, a novelist, a writer on true crime, criminal justice and behavioral profiling and, particularly, as one of the cohort who remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing upon hearing that President Kennedy had been shot. Each of these qualifications, of course, brings its own biases, for at this remove, the subject is its own cultural Rorschach test that cannot be approached with any reasonable claim to objectivity.

The word "Tale" in the title, it seems to me, is crucial to the understanding of what Mailer is trying to do with this book or, as some critics have suggested, two books: the first covering Oswald's sojourn in the Soviet Union and the second his return to the United States. In fact, Mailer divides the work into two related "volumes." Volume One is entitled, Oswald in Minsk with Marina; Volume Two, Oswald in America. By relating the story of Lee Harvey Oswald's adult life--where he went, what he did and who he met--Mailer hopes to shed light on the two critical questions that everyone has been asking since the day Oswald himself was gunned down in full view of the television public: Did he do it? And, if so, why?

Because the author is the most audacious literary gunslinger of the age, there is always the risk, the compulsive gambler's instinct, to bet it all on each roll of the dice. As with his oft-expressed notion that sex is not complete, is not the total existential act, without the element of sin and guilt, so the literary adventure he sets for himself is meaningless without the very real possibility of failure. He has done it over and over again--to brilliant effect in The Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song, to cite but two examples, and not so successfully in a number of others. But one of the many factors that solidified my tremendous admiration for Mailer, the palpable sense of excitement in his work, was just that sense of risk; that good writers should never rest on their laurels or fall back on the thing that worked last time. …

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