Beautifully written, as all Don Dellilo books are, Libra, his tone prose poem about Lee Harvey Oswald, suffers from the knowledge that we all have of where the story is headed. Even so, there are some wonderful moments and even plot twists on the way. Delillo’s unique sense of pace, his stellar diction, and his theory of the Kennedy assassination as a failed plot to create a hard miss of the President that would be blamed on the Cubans and spark new energy to invade Cuba in the wake of Bay of Pigs make for a fascinating, artful look at the history and personalities of those days. It also inspires the imagination and reminds us, like le Carre does, that the world of covert operations is, well, silly—but silliness that can have terrible results; covert operatives have the same harebrained ideas as the rest of us; but unlike most of us, they have the weapons and training to kill people.
The novel’s best moment is clearly the scene in Dallas, 22 November 1963. Delillo intersperses viewpoints and audio stimuli and moments of inner perception and flat description in a brilliant pastiche. My favorite passage at the moment doesn’t have quite all of these:
He fired through an opening in the leaf cover.
When the car was in the clear again, the President began to react.
Lee turned up the handle, drew the bolt back.
The President reacted, arms coming up, elbows high and wide.
There were pigeons, suddenly, everywhere, cracking down from the eaves and beating west.
The report sounded over the plaza, flat and clear.
The President’s fists were clenched near his throat, arms bowed out.
Lee drove the bolt forward, jerking the handle down.
The Lincoln was moving slower now. It was almost dead still. It was sitting naked in the street eighty yards from the underpass.
Ready on the firing line.
It took chutzpah to write this story, so engrained in our culture, so over-determined with meaning and myth. Probably only a few other writers (Capote? Roth?) could have gotten away with it as well as Delillo does.