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LIBRA by Don DeLillo Kirkus Star


by Don DeLillo

Pub Date: Aug. 15th, 1988
ISBN: 0140156046
Publisher: Viking

DeLillo's fascination with conspiracy, apocalypse, and public events--tesselated from a hundred chips of separate, small human misery--turns to the Kennedy assassination almost inevitably. And with the style honed by his most recent novels, White Noise and The Names (which this book seems closest to), he is able to construct a half-speculation, half-tragedy very finely. Lee Harvey Oswald is, of course, the center, the Libra of the book--his scales tipped lifelong by ugliness, outsider-ness, a smothering mother, a desperate need to distinguish himself somehow. The ex-Marine who defected to Russia and returned (and yet who called himself a Marxist even more doggedly back in the States with his Russian wife) is, in DeLillo's version, the completely marginal man, utterly without qualities. Which makes him a too-good-to-be-true instrument for a plot by current and ex-CIA operatives (as well as by disgruntled Bay of Pigs veterans) to find someone to take a shot at President Kennedy. That the shot is supposed to miss (kill a Secret Service man at worst)--and that the furor resulting from it would then be pointed in Cuba's direction, as a Castro plot to kill Kennedy--gets quickly forgotten as the conspiracy begins to take on a life of its own: the multiple gunmen in place, Oswald as the gun they'll let the police find and do with as they will. As speculation, this is nothing new, but DeLillo's novelistic powers become very keen indeed, especially when forming scenes for the plotters. For them, ideology is more than slippery, it's of no-account: process is all--and yet everything is always at the lip of chaos. Oswald keeps slipping from their grasp, for instance, and real organization is an illusion. Brilliant interior monologues (with the exception of that of Oswald's mother, Marguerite, which is largely hokey and theatrical) suggest deep seriousness at the total whim of accident. DeLillo mars the book a little with overly portentous intellectual meditations (by one of the CIA operatives) on the nature of plots--murderous or fictional--and by Jack Ruby's hopelessly awkward Jewish-gangster manner of speaking. But these are flaw-specks in a book that is genuinely dread-filled--a story that everyone knows he doesn't really know, and which DeLillo worries, and prods, and deepens with sure artistry.