Mailer’s OSWALD’S TALE (with some scant attention to James’ POPULAR CRIME)

May 6, 2020
Might as well get the Bill-and-baseball-related part up front, cuz most of this ain’t:

 

There’s some connection between Bill and Norman Mailer that I’ve been meaning to shoot him a HEY BILL about, probably a pretty marginal connection—what I understand is that Mailer was one of Bill’s earliest boosters, back in the late 1970s when he had a readership of dozens. Bill, that is, not Mailer.

It was a little odd, not that a smart guy like Mailer wouldn’t take a shine to an oddball out-of-the-box anti-establishment contrarian like Bill, because he absolutely would. As I hope to show, Mailer often championed men despised by the establishment, especially when they took a belligerent stance towards a fat and lazy world as Bill is wont to do. (And was even more wont, in those far-off days.)

But Norman Mailer nowhere in his voluminous works claimed to be a baseball fan, as far as I can tell, which is pretty far. And in the period I’m describing here, the late 1970s, you would need to dig pretty far down into the literature of baseball to have even a glimmer of who Bill James was, much less to decide to order one of those now-valuable typed-and-Xeroxed copies of Bill’s earliest Abstracts, but that’s exactly what I understand Mailer did, and then to praise it publicly, which Mailer must have done, because where else would I get this notion that he was an early fan?

Bill can expand on this idea, if he likes, because that’s pretty much all I have on the subject of Mailer’s connection to Bill’s early work. It would be interesting to read Bill’s memoirs someday, not so much about the development of sabermetrics, because that’s all pretty much out there in his body of work, but about his career path, the people who helped and harmed him along the way, paths he was tempted to go down but took instead the other road in the yellow wood, the connective tissue between his baseball writing and his other writings, and a bunch of other subjects he has only hinted at. I’d buy a copy, for sure.

My personal connection here is that in the late 1970s, a few years before Bill helped me by publishing my writing in the (by-then) best-selling Abstract, I was living around the corner from Norman Mailer in Brooklyn Heights, and ran into him a time or two on the Promenade, in his favorite Montague Street restaurant (Armando’s), on the IRT (he was reading a tabloid and I didn’t feel like pestering him). I had written a couple of papers on his work in college a few years earlier, and I was living on Hicks Street with a woman who had written her senior thesis on Mailer’s Armies of the Night. This woman (later my fiancée, even later my wife, and eventually my ex-) had read every word Mailer had ever written, and I had wooed her in part by matching her knowledge of his work so as to discuss her thesis with her on a high level.

In my own senior year, I had written a parody of Mailer’s political writing. In those days, he was churning out book-length coverage of both parties’ Presidential nominating conventions (Miami and the Siege of Chicago  in 1968 and St. George and the Godfather in 1972, both excellent) so in 1975, I had decided (in lieu of writing an academic paper on Mailer in my AmLit senior seminar) to turn in a few chapters of "Normal Failure"’s account of the 1976 Democratic Convention, with all the appropriate parodistic flourishes of his grand style, all the metaphysical speculations of his thinking, all the elaborate Maileresque metaphors and preenings. (The one bit I can recall at this remove of 44 years is having my narrator refer to himself by the nom de plume "Aquavelva" in a MAD-magazine-style version of Mailer’s use of the name "Aquarius" in his 1970 book Of A Fire on the Moon. "Aquavelva" also rang true to me because Mailer loved writing about smells, odors, stinks, fragrances, stenches, pungencies, perfumes—the olfactory sense pervaded his entire body of writing, which was only one of the thousand tics I’d noticed in my studies of his work.) My AmLit professor had published an academic book on Mailer’s work himself, and took him seriously as an important thinker and writer, so he was dismayed to see that I had not, as instructed, submitted a serious academic paper but instead a stylistic travesty of Mailer. I got an A from him, however, when (as he admitted) he found my parody cracking him up where he was expecting it to disappoint him—it was mean-spirited and nasty, even disrespectful to Mailer, but clearly his writing style resonated with me. This was one of the first occasions that I learned how I might break the rules, and ruffle feathers, if I did it with originality and verve, a lesson that Mailer himself (and Bill James) had followed all his life. (Sometimes, feather-rufflers get slapped down, too, of course, but you just take your licks and keep going.)

Anyway, when I was living in the Heights, I had a few more occasions to cross paths with Mailer—very early on, before taking up with my fiancée, I had dated a girl who was working as an au pair in Mailer’s building, a brownstone on Columbia Heights (a street, not a neighborhood) that he owned. I think he was subletting a floor to the family that this girl worked for, so I got to hang out in his house on a few occasions, and I would hear him tromping up the stairs from time to time. I could have easily manufactured a way to bump into him, accidentally, and I thought about how I might do that, but I was a little too shy, and eventually the girl and I stopped seeing each other. Pretty Japanese girl, too, whose first name and last initial was, no kidding, Yoko O., which was only a small part of her charm—oh, well.

I also had a friend from high school who was a crackerjack typist –I mean, this guy could type a gazillion words a minute, and was a very smart fellow besides, probably one of the best musicians and songwriters in the country, who was financing his musical career by taking on top-end typing jobs, one of which was Genius and Lust, Mailer’s 1976 study of Henry Miller’s writing that got him all sorts of loose stools flung his way by the women’s movement at the time. Anyway, this old pal confided one day that Mailer was looking for an assistant to help him research his current project, a book about the murderer Gary Gilmore that required a lot of interviewing and logistical work as well as a heightened sensitivity to language. This would turn out, a few years later, of course, to be The Executioner’s Song, one of the best true-crime books ever written, but in 1976 or 1977 it was just Mailer’s current project, very mysterious and hush-hush.

I promptly wrote Mailer a letter, applying for the job, telling him my qualifications: my interest in his writing, my literary education, the writing professor we had each had in college (a scholar named Robert Gorham Davis), my proximity to his home (and the implied 24/7 availability), my eagerness to work for him. And oh yeah, I also sent him my 25- or 30-page parody of "Normal Failure"’s coverage of the 1976 Democratic Convention. (Which by this time had actually occurred, with no corresponding coverage by Mailer.)  I think I sent him my only copy, in fact, so confident was I that I would land the job.  I knew I could ask for it back after I started work for him. I certainly don’t have a copy now, as I do of most of my other college work.

He wrote me back a very cordial note a few days later, thanking me for my keen interest in the assistant job, adding sadly that he’d already filled the position but would keep me in mind if further work were needed. I was so thrilled to get a signed letter from Norman Mailer, and so jazzed that he didn’t seem annoyed by my affrontery in making savage fun of his writing style, that I neglected to ask if he would kindly send my parody back to me.

I left Brooklyn Heights in 1978 to begin grad school, but never left my interest in Mailer, who as I’ve speculated somehow became interested in Bill James’ work around that time. Strangely enough, my application letter for the assistant’s job mentioned in passing my baseball talents, such as they were, because I was engaged at the time in a regular ongoing stickball game in a schoolyard near Mailer’s (and my) house—I think I was trying to show him that I was a competitive and physical young fellow, not just some bookworm, qualities Mailer might have admired and needed in an assistant on this project, which involved consorting with prisoners, law enforcement personnel, etc.  I don’t think I actually challenged him to come down to the schoolyard and try to get a hit off my pitching in stickball, but I considered it.

Anyway, our physical paths diverged after I moved out of Brooklyn, but the one theme that Mailer and I continued to be obsessed by was the "crime of the century" (my opinion) that Bill James described at length in Popular Crime, the assassination of JFK. We’ve dealt with assassination theories and speculations on this website at great length, and I am right now engaged in writing a book-length work that (I think) will make great use of the book Bill touted in Popular Crime, and which we’ve dissected here, Mortal Error by Bonar Menninger. (Can’t say any more than that at this point, mainly because I haven’t gotten very far in the writing, just the research, but I will when I’ve gotten a little bit further.)  Mailer was a nut on the subject of JFK, whose 1960 campaign was the subject of Mailer’s first important piece of political analysis, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket."  He was particularly fascinated by conspiracy theories, the Mob, the CIA, violence in general—the JFK assassination was a subject that his jaws could never release for longer than a month at a time.

It happens that I’ve been, at various points in my life, a true JFK-assassination buff—attending conventions of other conspiracy theorists, arguing ballistics ad infinitum, even interviewing one of the Watergate burglars (Frank Sturgis) who was thought to have been one of the alternate assassins in Dallas that day. So when Mailer wrote a non-fiction volume about Lee Harvey Oswald in 1993, a 791-page study of Oswald’s character and his life, I bought myself a copy.

I didn’t read this book for a long time. In fact, I brought it with me, unread, when I moved from New York City to Florida last year, as one of many books I had been looking forward to reading when I got a little leisure time, which Covid-19 and retirement finally delivered to me.

It is one strange book. Mailer’s late career was uneven, by which I mean that after a certain midway point (Mailer’s dates are 1923-2007), he had plainly lost something off his fastball. Whether this was mental decline, physical wear and tear, or simply the inevitable damage of signing book contracts for the most money (as opposed to "for the most riveting book"), is hard to say, but I feared that this Oswald project, described as a virtual biography of JFK’s assassin, fell into the "filthy lucre" category.

Even if it was written to finance another expensive divorce, though, Mailer was incapable of writing a truly bad book—even his stinkers had a certain heady fragrance to them, sort of like the rich aroma of a slaughterhouse, that isn’t easily forgotten.

This one had a certain charming perversity to it. Mailer understood, as even the most perceptive of writers rarely do, the thought processes of the villainous, monstrous, criminal mind. Some castigated him for this insight—I’m thinking of those feminists in the 1970s when he wrote (and defended in public debate against the likes of Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston) The Prisoner of Sex. These gentleladies charged, not without cause, that he was championing sexism itself rather than explaining how and why it worked from an interior perspective. He understood the mixed motivations of sexist attitudes because he had harbored many such feelings himself, as most men have, and could articulate the impulses behind them, not all of them equally terrible. Some, he maintained, even stemmed from noble sources, while others were sadly necessary for the propagation of the human species.  His aim was not to make villains respectable but rather it was to understand how and why they thought the way they did. For this, he was often vilified himself, and he sometimes played the part to irritate his critics: "You think I’m an overbearing jerk? Well, I’ll show you what an overbearing jerk really looks like!"

Other times, he could be (or could imitate—who knew for sure?) a courtly, soft-spoken gentleman. But his instincts were perverse: if you gave him a Gary Gilmore, or a Jack Abbott, or a Lee Harvey Oswald, you could count on him to locate the humanity within the loathsome creature, and to bring it out on full display.

Okay, but Lee Harvey Oswald? Really?

I don’t know about you, but in all the literature I ever read on JFK’s assassin, I never found him to be a deep or complicated person, deserving of his own full-length (791 pages! Jesus Christ!) biography, but that’s exactly Mailer’s goal in Oswald’s Tale, and damned if he doesn’t pull it off. My impression of Oswald, after reading hundreds of books and articles that tried in part to analyze his personality, is of a bland, under-educated, bitter, and confused young man, who either was used by a dark conspiracy of unknowable proportions to play the role of an assassin, or who planned and miraculously executed his own ill-considered assassination scheme himself. But either way, I never got a feel for why he did whatever he did, and I concluded that his reasons were probably not worth knowing.

I always found him to be a moron, either way. Mailer argues he was actually quite bright, but with no path to shine his brightness on. His only reading that most sources mention is his steeping himself in Marxist-Leninist texts that he took out of his local libraries. The best clue into how well he was acquainted with Marxist thought is that, when he applied for Soviet citizenship in the late 1950s, the Russians who handled his application thought his paraphrasing of political tracts superficial and lacking in understanding. But Mailer argues that he was, or at least tried to be, a great reader. The young Oswald took solace in books, and persisted in studying them despite the discouragement of his acquaintances, his family, his schools, who uniformly dismissed Oswald’s efforts to educate himself.

Mailer plays a little trick on his reader, a clever three-card Monte trick, in which he hides the thing that kept Oswald’s literate side from everyone: whenever he presents a document that Oswald had written (a letter begging the Soviets to extend his tourist visa, or a complaint to the U.S. Embassy that his rights as an American citizen are being ignored, etc.) Mailer silently edits each document, correcting the hundreds of low-level writing errors that Oswald routinely committed.  Lee Harvey Oswald was dyslexic. Evrey setnce eh erad lokoed liek tihs ot hmi. Mailer understood, correctly, that highly intelligent people can suffer from this ailment but be perceived by the world to be mentally retarded because of it. By presenting these letters, notes, manuscripts, government forms with cleaned-up grammar, spelling, sentence structure (and cleaned up by one of the great masters of English prose!) Mailer gives us an Oswald as he thought of himself more than as the world saw him.

Mailer makes us admire Oswald, or at least admire his persistence in struggling through book after dense book (and did you ever try reading Marxist thought? It has broken many a finer brain than mine trying to penetrate its impenetrable prose) despite his severe dyslexia. Even if he never understood a single concept that he read, we must admire his hunger for learning. There was a world out there that oppressed this pathetic specimen of humanity, and he was determined to learn how that unkind world operated, and whether there were better operating systems for him to be a part of.

Oswald’s life is puzzling, because it was a puzzle to him, too, and his plan to solve it kept changing.  One of the more incomprehensible parts of the puzzle that Mailer made clear to me was why does a scrawny teenage left-winger, picked-on most of his life so far, want to enlist in the Marine Corps, as Oswald did?  From my entitled perspective, a Marine boot camp is an unappealing destination for a very un-patriotic little weasel to exile himself to, but Mailer makes that decision seem eminently sensible: it was a safe haven from his oppressive mother’s home.

Also, Oswald’s older brother, Robert E. Lee Oswald Jr., had escaped Marguerite Oswald’s clutches via that same route, years earlier. (Their dead father had named both of his sons after General Lee, after whom he himself had been named.)  So the Marine Corps, where Oswald, somewhat predictably, did get ostracized, picked-on, ridiculed, bullied, ignored, disciplined, and twice court-martialed, was the fire to Marguerite’s frying pan of a miserable home. Mailer interviewed Oswald’s surviving family, including Robert’s wife Vada (only the second human being I’ve ever heard of with that odd first name), and a cast of thousands. The research alone is impressively extensive— to write this book, Mailer, along with a research assistant and a translator, interviewed every living person (and read up on every dead one) who had ever had any dealings with Oswald on two continents.

The other continent was Asia. Mailer and his team travelled to the former Soviet Union when it became "former" and its archive of documents were opened to the world. That was, I believe, his initial impetus to write this book, the sudden treasure trove of sources, both human and documentary, in Russia that had been hidden for thirty years. Mailer’s team lived in Minsk and Moscow and Leningrad for months interviewing every Russian who’d ever met, worked with, befriended, or betrayed the young ex-Marine who attempted to defect and to fit into Soviet society.

Mailer’s choice in structuring Oswald’s Tale is very odd: it begins in Russia with the detailed life-stories of the couple who would eventually raise Marina Prusakova, Oswald’s wife, and then with the context of all the interviewed Russians’ life-stories.  This is an odd choice, because 1) we only get to meet Oswald a few hundred pages into Oswald’s Tale, and 2) we only get to see him through the eyes of all the Russians who met him. For the first half of this book, which half alone is 344 pages, Mailer exposes us to a baffling array of Russian names, complete with patronymic forms, the vast majority of whose contact with Oswald is brief and peripheral, and bogs us down with detail after grim detail of life in Minsk in 1959 and 1960.

Grimness is the point. And suspense. Mailer goes out of his way to begin this book without Oswald and in Russia to stress the question of "What the hell is he doing there?" and to make clear to his American readership why he wanted to leave two years into his stay.

Simply, Oswald fled America because he saw his life here as doomed to poverty under capitalism, and then he fled Russia because he saw his life there as doomed to oppression under communism. That’s how he expressed it, too, writing in his journal that his dilemma was choosing between poverty here and oppression there. Defenders of capitalism can express all the bootstrap metaphors they like, but even they have to admit that, numerically, Oswald had a point: how many uneducated anti-social friendless paupers end up prospering in a capitalist society? Some, but very, very few. Most live out meek lives of quiet desperation. Even fewer, though, get to perceive their fate, and almost none even attempt to do anything about it—their idea of struggling against the society that has trapped them into poverty is to get drunk on Saturday night and, if they get real lucky, try to reproduce another poor soul or five who is trapped even more cruelly. To continue this ugly metaphor (Mailer is contagious), Oswald at least tried gnawing his own foot off in escaping to what he hoped was a socialist paradise.

It was not a socialist paradise. It wasn’t socialist, and it sure as hell wasn’t paradise. Oswald found the Soviet Union even more bureaucratic, petty, puritanical, intrusive, and oppressive than he found the U.S., which is saying something.  He almost literally cut his foot off when, at first, the Soviets refused to extend his tourist visa: he attempted suicide by slitting his wrist, which got him into a hospital and then into a factory where the Russians kept him working under close observation until they could figure out what his game was.

The problem there is that his game kept changing.  It wasn’t very long before the country that he preferred death to leaving became the country he was dying to leave. In the final months of Oswald’s life, back in the U.S. for two years, his scheme became to escape to a better paradise for workers, Castro’s Cuba. In another mystery that Mailer cleared up for me, Oswald’s motive in working for a non-existent "Fair Play for Cuba" committee (members: Oswald and a bunch of his pseudonyms) was to get himself arrested passing out pro-Castro pamphlets, which isn’t too difficult in New Orleans. His arrest record would then be the credentials he could present to Castro’s government, once he’d gotten to Havana via Mexico, and get himself a job as Fidel’s new Propaganda Minister.

Seriously.

Not a deep thinker, or careful planner, or rational philosopher, but still a figure Mailer admires for his aspirations—Oswald’s life was an intense effort to promote himself out of his hopeless bone-crushing poverty and into a prominent place in improving the condition of the world and, not incidentally, himself.

He was a bit of a megalomaniac, in other words, which quality Mailer could identify with, or at least understand and explain to those of us who just saw a mysterious loser in Oswald. As I said, I had considered him to be a moron, and Mailer certainly persuaded me that Oswald had a brain. A deviant brain, for sure, but a highly functional one.

Mailer interviewed hundreds of Russians, and then he interviewed hundreds of Americans, the most intriguing of whom were ex-Russian expatriates.  Back home in Texas, Oswald (and his young Russian-speaking wife and newborn baby) hung out with immigrants from Russia, who felt sorry for his wife and child but who detested Oswald himself, for all the reasons you can imagine and then some. Mainly, they felt lucky to have escaped the horrible Soviet Union, as Oswald had, and expressed strong anti-Communist sentiments, as Oswald had not. Indeed, his chief complaint wasn’t that Russia was Communist, but that it wasn’t Communist enough to suit his tastes, which were far from the tastes of the Dallas émigré community.

Mailer devotes a lot of his pages on this community to a dashing figure he describes as "Oswald’s best friend in Dallas," a barrel-chested Belorussian-born sophisticated wheeler-dealer named George DeMohrenschildt.  During the decades I was thinking of Oswald as a simple-minded moron, I punned on this man’s name as "George, the moron’s shield," which turned out to be true and not true at the same time. Long suspected of being a CIA operative, DeMohrenschildt was instead, by the early 1960s, a businessman who was trying to establish a commercial venture in Haiti that required the help of the CIA, so he was willing to perform tasks for them, including observing and reporting Oswald’s suspicious activities in Dallas, which were numerous. Mailer cites two separate appraisals of Oswald by DeMohrenschildt, the first in 1964, a voluminous 118-page testimony before the Warren Commission, that is hostile at best to Oswald, and the second in 1977, in his memoir about Oswald that is warm and admiring. One example of the wildly shifting tone and content: in 1964, he describes Oswald as "a semieducated hillbilly….All of his opinions were crude….His mind was of a man with exceedingly poor background, who read rather advanced books, and did not even understand the words in them….So how can you take seriously a person like that? You just laugh at him."

By 1977, he was describing an entirely different Oswald: "Lee’s English was perfect, refined, rather literary, deprived of any Southern accent. He sounded like a very educated American of indeterminate background….it amazed me that he read such difficult writers like Gorky, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev—in Russian. I taught Russian at all levels in a large university and I never saw such proficiency."

On one point, however, testimony and manuscript agree: Oswald had written an account of his stay in Minsk, where DeMohrenschildt had spent his boyhood, and had shown it to him. DeMohrenschildt found it lacking in literary appeal, but Mailer suggests that he had probably been approached by the CIA to get to know the young ex-defector and find out what his story was: KGB agent? Disillusioned American patriot? Useful idiot? Agent for another government? Double-agent? Triple? DeMohrenschildt and his wife socialized with the Oswalds in an attempt to ingratiate themselves while finding out what they were doing in Dallas below the surface. He protected him, and flattered him, and felt superior to him, and tried to steer work his way, and laughed at him behind his back throughout this ongoing attempt at debriefing.

There are plenty of such insights in this long character study. What Mailer has achieved here is to apply his own perceptions to a gigantic whirlwind of data, and pick out from all the interviews and literature and other analysts’ conclusions the bits that make the most sense to him. He spares us from having to plow through that mountain of material, and retain in our heads the key parts of it. Because I was exposed to both of these books at once this week, I saw similarities between it and Bill James’ Popular Crime, where he spends ten pages distilling the essence of Menninger’s Mortal Error, which is packed with enough ballistical detail to make you want to blow your brains out in despair. Bill picks out the crucial observations that summarize Menninger’s strong points and his weak ones, and then draws the conclusion that the strong ones prevail, explaining why he thinks so, pithily and directly.

It is a great service, and takes a great skill, to be able to do what Mailer and James have done, to absorb unthinkably large, complicated, mysterious and overwhelming texts and render them succinctly and memorably. Sometimes, this has the effect of making you run out and look at the data yourself, and other times, it has the opposite effect: you feel as if you’ve gotten most of the benefit of reading a huge body of confusing text without having to go to the bother of actually reading it yourself. Either way, I feel grateful when a very smart guy helps me understand a subject that’s way above my pay grade.

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider
Stephen Goldleaf,

I guess my point was that, while Oswald perceived himself presumably to be a victim of "the system", it seems to me he was really a victim of himself. I'm sure there are a lot of people who blame others for their own shortcomings.
3:49 PM May 8th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Don't you think there are millions fitting that description? I guess I'm not understanding your main point here. Millions of Oswalds, but only a few as acutely aware of their terrible situations as he was, and only one owning a rifle on the day that the President's route past his sniper's nest/workplace is announced in advance.
4:38 PM May 7th
 
Marc Schneider
My point was, what skills did Oswald have that would make him a valuable member of society? I wasn't trying to suggest that we should simply let people rot in poverty, but you need SOMETHING that will add value. Oswald couldn't add value either here or in the USSR. I understand that HE thought he was one of those unappreciated geniuses that deserved the approbation of society. But it wasn't like he lived in crushing poverty. He was just a loser who thought he deserved to be a winner.


4:30 PM May 7th
 
Steven Goldleaf
He was very small potatoes. There may have been a few dozen American losers like Oswald every year pulling stunts like quasi-defecting to various axis of evil empires for incomprehensible motives, falling into and out of the CIA's radar, writing their garbled letters to embassies all across the globe. Most of them just pile up in the "Hopeless Loser" category--but assassinate ONE US PRESIDENT, and everyone suddenly wants to know why you didn't have 19 undercover agents tailing him for years throughout Minsk's back streets.
2:59 PM May 7th
 
mauimike
Your answer makes sense and is probably right, but at a time right after the Red Scare and the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming and we were getting under our desks because they were going to bomb us any minute, they let him back in. Good riddance, would seem to be the proper course.
1:14 PM May 7th
 
Steven Goldleaf
He was born "Jerzy von Mohrenschildt"
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_de_Mohrenschildt

and came from a fairly ritzy background. The link doesn't mention, but other sources do, that he was entitled to call himself "Baron DeMohrenschildt" but preferred not to.

I prefer my home-made translation.
12:04 PM May 7th
 
steve161
I believe Mailer's only book about any sport is The Fight (1975) about the rumble in the jungle.

"DeMohrenschildt", leaving off the prefix, translates more or less to "Moor's shield." I wonder if it's his real name.

Excellent review, but I can't say the subject interests me enough to read the book. I felt the same way about The Executioner's Song.

Not a knock: as a professor of mine liked to say, paraphrasing Chesterton, "There are no uninteresting subjects, only uninterested people."
11:44 AM May 7th
 
Steven Goldleaf
malbuff--exactly. I thought I covered the exceptions with "how many uneducated anti-social friendless paupers end up prospering in a capitalist society? Some, but very, very few." That "some" covers Ben Carson, Steve Jobs, and maybe 2000 or 20,000 others (including Bill and me) but there are millions of others who never get the education and the other breaks that we get, and who live their lives in misery and frustration. Besides, I'm just trying to give Oswald's position, not my own, here. I said that he had a point, not that he argued that point brilliantly and definitively.
11:02 AM May 7th
 
malbuff
Steven, excellent article. I too never imagined that anyone, let alone someone like Mailer, would find Oswald a subject of intense study. Now that you've compared it to Bill's "Popular Crime," which I liked a great deal, I may have to go out and get it.

In your last response to a comment, I think you are conflating "impoverished" with "uneducated and anti-social." America is filled with people who were born poor but, through education and social skills, lifted themselves out of poverty; Dr Ben Carson, in the news of late, is one example, born poor in a seriously dysfunctional family. I would agree that poverty combined with little or no education and an anti-social nature is almost guaranteed to be a permanent condition for such a person, but it's not true that poverty in America has been generational in nature, although in recent years it may be trending that way. I'd recommend the works of Thomas Sowell, who has written extensively on this subject (he's another outstanding example of one who overcame poverty through the education and family support Oswald never had). ​
10:19 AM May 7th
 
mauimike
Damn I thought you were going to say, "Because THEY had plans for him.
10:00 AM May 7th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I think that's exactly what Oswald expected, Marc: that any society worth its salt would recognize his abilities and reward them. I don't know how satisfying capitalists' answer to his whining is, that he should pick himself up by the bootstraps, and work his ass off for years, on the very slim chance that by doing so he will better his situation. I don't know that anyone has ever come up with a good plan for most impoverished people to rise out of poverty--most poor people seem, as I say, to deal with that problem by resigning themselves to making the best of it and dying as poor as they were when they were born. Oswald is that rare, angry case who decided to do something about it, and he chose one of the stupidest, destructive, enraged, violent methods of changing the world he could have chosen.
9:16 AM May 7th
 
Marc Schneider
Really interesting review and it has motivated me to read the book. Oswald is definitely a mystery. And your analysis of Mailer and his view of sexism rings is fascinating.

But I found this line rather odd" "Defenders of capitalism can express all the bootstrap metaphors they like, but even they have to admit that, numerically, Oswald had a point: how many uneducated anti-social friendless paupers end up prospering in a capitalist society?"

What has that really got to do with capitalism? Is it a great shock that people like Oswald are unsuccessful? I suspect his failure has more to do with Oswald than with capitalism (or socialism for that matter). I think a lot of people who aren't really nice people become successful (Steve Jobs comes to mind). It's hard to imagine any society where Oswald would have prospered. Did Oswald expect that somehow the society would recognize his genius and bestow honors upon him?

Nevertheless, I really like your reviews, even if they do get a bit long. :)
8:57 AM May 7th
 
Steven Goldleaf
The teaser, which is too long to be read in its entirety (what, me verbose? Go on wid yuz!), reads "A sort of book review, career review, personal essay, confession, appreciation, memoir, homage, query and about eight other genres combined—and all for the same low, low price!"
8:16 AM May 7th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Excellent question, mike. As I understand it, he had gone as far as one can go in renouncing his citizenship without actually renouncing it, so they sort of had to let him back in. He had shoved his US passport in the embassy's face on arriving in the USSR, and instructed them where they could shove it, but hadn't dotted the tees and crossed his eyes on the formal dissolution of his citizenship. Maybe he couldn't do that until the Soviets accepted his application for citizenship there, which only makes sense--you have to be a citizen of someplace at all times, don't you? When the Soviets rejected him, and he became disillusioned with their faux-socialist culture, he had to write to the embassy, which was plenty sick of him by this point, to remind them that he needed his passport that they still had, and they took their own sweet time in returning to him, at which point he (and Marina and the baby) skedaddled to that worker's paradise, Dollars, Taxes, USA.
6:40 AM May 7th
 
mauimike
You've left everyone speechless. Which might be a first here.

I do have a question though, why did they let Oswald back into the United States?
6:09 AM May 7th
 
 
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