Mailer's Lee Harvey Oswald may not even rank among Mailer's best books, but Mailer can't seem to write a truly bad book. In fact, Mailer does many things right in his Oswald. First, he has chosen a remarkably interesting hero for the subject of this "American mystery." While Oswald seemed to hover on the brink of high-functioning autism or some sort of a narcissistic personality disorder, at the tender age of 21 he somehow managed to place himself right in the middle of 1960s global realities by defecting from one superpower, the United States, to its nemesis and alter ego, the Soviet Union. Once in the Soviet Union, Oswald encounters and then embraces a hundred signs of Soviet reality. First, the Soviet Union's official tour guides from Intourist guide him around the capital. Next, the country's ubiquitous security agents arrange for Oswald to remove himself to Minsk, in the hear of Belorussia. After that, Oswald is allowed to find a job, mingle with Soviet colleagues, and even date a series of Soviet women.
The secret police monitor the potential spy closely, but want to give Oswald enough personal freedom to engender careless behavior that might ultimately betray his clandestine ties to American spy networks. Oswald, a mixture of bad Russian language skills and political naivete, embraces Soviet reality, at least at first. As a privileged outsider, Soviet officials want to give him the chance to become acclimated to socialism; they want him to thrive in that reality. Accordingly, he's given a modest apartment with a view in a country with a severe housing shortage. He's also given a small stipend. Interviewed many years later, Mailer and his researchers uncover a quotidian Soviet reality of propaganda movies, political surveillance, anti-antisemitism, and unhappy memories of the German invasion fifteen years previously.
What Oswald encountered in Minsk was a rapidly recovering Soviet Union that had only recently emerged from the terror of Stalinism. Oswald didn't seem to mind. He had already severed his personal ties to home. Living without almost any contact with countrymen or family members, he sometimes talked to a friend who had studied English or tuned in to the Voice of America to hear even a fragment of his native language. Oswald professed disgust with American militarism, and seemed to agree with the Soviet Union's official assessment of American inequality. But even KGB agents agreed (and their testimony, along with Oswald's diary, has been unearthed by Mailer's researchers) that Oswald was politically immature. Notwithstanding his alienation from American society, he was only tangentially familiar with Marxist-Leninist political economy.
This state of alienation from both East and West must have been devastating, or would have been for a more mentally healthy individual. How can one imagine such a state of isolation? I can think only of my recent divorce. Before divorcing, I thought mostly of the loss of my partner. The reality was much worse than this. Having gone through the legal separation, I wonder how, once upon a time, a simple breakup could seem so devastating. In high school, my girlfriend of two years broke up with me and I was a mess. I could scarcely admit to myself how painful the experience had been, and certainly never said anything to my friends about the feeling of loss. I guess I imagined that I would be alone forever, or that life would just go downhill from that point on. With divorce, the experience of loss, alienation, and isolation is magnified many times over. You lose your partner of many years, but also your friends and family, and ultimately you lose your child as well. My saddest memory of the divorce is this: when showing my young son his new home, and new room, he discovered a brand new Star Wars lunch container I had bought him. He looked at the lunch bag with gratitude and exclaimed: "Thank you, Daddy!" It felt like being kicked in the stomach: tearing my son out of his familiar world and placing him between two opposing worlds, he was thanking me for the ruin I was bringing on him.
Of course, this smacks of hyperbole: divorce, when it comes, is often the best thing we can do for our children. And in reality, we all lose our children eventually when they grow up, make friends, and leave for college, and then move out of the home once and for all. Divorce merely accelerates the process. I felt many times as if someone had driven a bus off of a cliff with all of my friends, family members, and acquaintances on it. Where once I could see my child every day, now I see him only on weekends. Where once I had a right to see my child on Christmas, now I have to check a legal document to see if that's possible or not. How is it that Lee Harvey Oswald willingly embraced this type of radical isolation from everyone he knew? The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere on the borderline between insanity and adventure. But I will have to finish Mailer's book to get his full explanation of Oswald's American tragedy. Of course, Oswald's story reminds us all that things can always get worse. One minute Oswald is divorced from his father; the next minute the whole country is divorced from its patriarch. As Shakespeare once said, and I only paraphrase him, "when sorrows come they come not as single spies, but as whole brigades."