Friday, June 29, 2007

Don DeLillo's Libra: America's Best Spy Novel?

Don DeLillo's Libra-- America's Best Spy Novel?

By Wesley Britton

"Someday, this operation would be studied at the highest levels of intelligence, in Langley and the Pentagon . . . Astonish them. Create coincidence so bizarre they have to believe it. Create a loneliness that beats with violent desire. This kind of man, an arrest, the false name, a stolen credit card, stalking a victim can be a way of organizing one's loneliness, making a network out of it, a fabric of connections. Desperate men give their solitude a purpose and a destiny."
(Don DeLillo, Libra, 1988)

In July 2006, The New York Times Book Review devoted one issue to what over 100 authors and critics felt are the best 25 American novels published over the last quarter century. Toni Morrison's Beloved topped the list; Philip Roth had the largest number of titles.

Such a list might not seem the most likely source to look for American spy fiction. Whenever critical discussions of espionage in literature take place, it's usually the Brits who take the top prizes. W. Somerset Maugham, John Le Carre', and Graham Green, in particular, are considered writers who used what Le Carre' called the "furniture of espionage" as a means to explore themes with literary depth. Their books looked at the ramifications of the Cold War, the meaning of secret lives, the costs of sacrificing innocents and professionals alike, the unknowns of choices made at the highest levels, and the depths of misguided human motives.

In contrast, American writers didn't contribute much to spy fiction until after the Bond boom made espionage a central focus of popular culture. Even then, excepting atomic age defectors and traitors popping up in headlines during the 1950s, the world of spycraft was largely Euro-centered in cities like Berlin and Moscow. The CIA and U.S. based books were mainly the pulp thrillers of Donald Hamilton and others wanting an American slice of the Bond pie. Not until the post-Watergate era did we see much serious use of secret ways in American literature. Then the themes were typically pointing to fears of the U.S. government being at best no better than the Reds or, at worst, conspiring against its own citizens. But, from time to time, noted writers who worked in wider spheres took a hand with spy stories, from Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to William Buckley to Norman Mailer.

What has all this to do with the New York Times Top 25 list? Two titles, both by Don DeLillo. The list included his 1997's Underworld, in which J. Edgar Hoover is one character. DeLillo's Libra got one vote as well. While no one would suggest Underworld would qualify as a spy novel, if The New York Times Book Review mention is a clue, Libra could be the best American espionage novel in contemporary literature.

Analysis of an Assassination

In my Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film (2005), I noted that in Mao II (1991),

"DeLillo claimed that the powerful exercise and retain their control in secret which forces the powerless to act in more dramatic ways. This concern was a continuation of themes expressed in DeLillo's most overt nod to espionage, Libra (1988), a novel on the life of Lee Harvey Oswald. The book is told from the point of view of Nicholas Branch, a retired senior CIA analyst who has been hired to write the secret history of the Kennedy assassination. According to Branch, disgraced and overzealous CIA agents hatched a plan to undo the disaster of the Bay of Pigs by staging an assassination attempt on President Kennedy. With a carefully manufactured trail leading to Fidel Castro, they hoped to provoke the United States into a full-scale second invasion of Cuba. Two agents think they're planning a surgical miss; a third intends to make the murder real and finds his gunman in the cipher, Lee Harvey Oswald. In this account, Oswald is a man who, in both fact and fiction, eludes easy description." *1*

Without question, DiLillo's creative intentions went far beyond most reality-based spy stories. DeLillo seemed to indicate that he saw Libra as an epic project when he had Nicholas Branch refer to his work as reviewing "the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he'd moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred. Everything is here . . . this is the Joyceian book of America . . . the novel in which nothing is left out." Forced to examine the most minute of documents along with the 26 volumes of The Warren Report, Libra is the dramatization of what Branch studies. The fragments of events and mindsets over three decades and speculations of motives and coincidences all cumulatively demonstrate that forces beyond easily graspable truths shaped the death of a president.

DeLillo's Branch surely reflected DeLillo's own task as a writer, author and character both researching the historical record for starting points. Facts: Oswald--who was never known as Lee Harvey until he became headline news--was a high-school dropout, twice court-martialed in the Marines, an unwanted defector, and a failed suicide. DeLillo's Oswald was someone drawn to Marxism as the ideology demands the individual disappear in favor of the greater good. He is a survivor treated badly at worst and ignored at best. One memorable scene has Oswald in the Marine brig, forced to stand behind a white line and ask permission to use a urinal. He is senselessly beaten while he stoically tries again and again to comply with harsh rules that are unfairly enforced.

This Oswald became an unreliable spy. After defecting to Russia, thinking it the home he never had in the U.S., he invented information about u-2 spyplanes to make himself seem more important than he was to his interrogators. Later, his claims about the height of U-2 flights are measured against those of pilot Francis Gary Powers who actually flew the plane. While he doesn't know it, Oswald has begun to become part of history, in the form of a man who is already blurring and confusing reality with his own ill-defined identity. "He'd be a real defector posing as a false defector posing as a real defector" trained intensively as a Russian agent in naval intelligence-at least in his imigination. In his thoughts, he'd be like TV FBI informant Herbert Philbric on I Led Three Lives. Instead, he is given menial work in a radio factory as the Russians have no idea what to do with him. When he later decides to return home, they give him his permits in but 48 hours, an unusual fulfillment of such a request. Are they setting loose their agent--an unlikely scenario--or jettisoning an enigmatic émigré?

This Oswald continues to see himself as a secret agent, although without apparent acceptance by any agency. DeLillo's Oswald is an excellent forger, able to create documents for various aliases and may, or maybe not, was a sharp-shooter. His Mother believes he was an American agent in Russia who married a KGB spy. Not likely. But he becomes the observed pawn in the game of rogue elephants who want to get America back into Cuba. He's now in a world of secret layers, a world in which the Mob manipulates the CIA by doing patriotic duties to keep prosecutors--and Robert Kennedy--off their backs. This CIA is, in one character's view, "the best organized church in the Christian world. A mission to collect and store everything that everyone has ever said and then reduce it to a microdot and call it God. "

In Libra, mysterious spymasters are indeed playing God-games. From a small town in Texas, the ex-CIA conspirators first seek a shooter who will give them a "spectacular, surgical miss" of JFK before deciding history determines he should die. The hit is wrapped in mazes to confuse future investigators and Oswald is just too good a figure not to use. Without explanation, the puppet-masters seem to know Oswald was the would-be assassin of right-wing General Ted Walker who gets a minor wound when Oswald tries to murder him in Dallas. *2* They think the hit on the president should be in Miami but history seems to favor them by bringing Kennedy to Dealy Plaza. Something beyond the schemes of men with limited vision is pulling the threads together.

Logically, why Oswald would interest this group makes little sense. He disappears for long periods of time, and they can't keep tabs on him. For him to show up in New Orleans and walk into the office of their chief recruiter was just one of many striking coincidences. The FBI is watching him as well for their purposes--for a conspiracy to align themselves with a man under surveillance isn't a likely choice. Oswald even bungles his alleged FBI cover by calling the bureau in for assistance when he's arrested for disorderly conduct. The conspirators have to manipulate his motives as Oswald wanted to shoot Walker as he thought Castro would consider it a favor and allow him to defect to Cuba, but he has no anti-Kennedy feelings. In fact, this Oswald reads James Bond books when he learns Kennedy likes them. True, Oswald is being set up as the "traceable artifact" and another rifleman is assumed will get in the actual kill shots. But no one could have predicted he'd be working at the Texas Book Depository in the month just before the presidential trip. In short, as one character put it, history is a force greater than what analysis will yield.

But the plotters don't get it all their way. They plan to murder Oswald in a movie theatre after the assassination where he goes thinking he's making the contact to take him to Cuba. Instead, he pointlessly murders a policeman and is arrested. Which brings Jack Ruby into the drama, a man who thinks of the assassination as akin to the crucifixion of Christ. Like fellow Dallasites, he's overwhelmed with the grief and fear their city is now forever tainted. History has found him and will make him a hero for killing the killer--and gangsters nudge history by offering Ruby a means out of his financial debt. But his motive is deeper, to erase Oswald from consciousness. Ruby's failure was that he was now forever linked to what he wanted to wipe clean.

In the end, we hear the testimony of Oswald's mother who remained convinced her son was a U.S. agent in Russia and that some force began shaping Lee as early as high school. Her muddled certainty is juxtaposed against the backdrop of coincidence piled on coincidence even beyond the biographies of those involved. After all, who can explain the parallels of the deaths of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy? Who can explain the mysterious deaths of so many participants in the years after the assassination?

The Unresolvable Epic

In his "Afterword" for Libra, DeLillo admitted he was not attempting to present historical truth and created all of his intelligence officers and Mafia figures. "After reading parts of the Warren Commission Report and visiting sites where Oswald lived, DeLillo's fictional biography and thoughts on the aftermath of the murders in Dallas resulted in the author's conclusions that the killing led to Americans living in a culture of national paranoia from which we have not recovered. He claims that his novels, ultimately unresolveable, could not have been written in the world before the Kennedy assassination. In later interviews, DeLillo stated Libra was a story without end as new theories, new suspects, and new documents appear that keep conspiracy fears alive." *3*

In my Beyond Bond, I made one note putting the novel in the context of spy literature:

"On another level, DeLillo's intellectual fiction can be seen as the other side of books in the John Buchan tradition where independent agents are drawn into defending their homeland. The dark side of covert loners, the terrorists and assassins in DeLillo's works, choose a secret life that empowers them in ways writers of fiction no longer have as a means to address social grievances."

To elaborate on this point, in much spy fiction, heroes and rogues alike take on secret missions reluctantly, drawn into the covert world for revenge, to understand events that have disrupted their lives, or for simple patriotic adventure. In Libra, DiLillo looks from the other side of the "Great Game"--examining individuals who see their outsiderness as a basis for striking back at a social order they are alienated from. In addition, one perennial theme of spy fiction--as in Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold--is that agents often pursue assignments without knowing the true purpose of their mission or what the "endgame" is for their masters. DiLillo's Oswald is even more the patsy, unaware he's been herded into a clandestine corral he has no stake in. He has indeed become a secret agent, but one who believes he will finally find honor and acceptance from a dictator who knows nothing about him. Instead, his path to alienation is complete and fatal.

Beyond Libra, Exploring themes of menace and meaning, violence and paranoia, DeLillo has frequently touched on cultural reactions to events many associate with the covert world. For example, his Running Dog (1978), an imaginative tale about a useless quest to find a secret pornographic film of Adolf Hitler, was partly a statement about the inquisitive nature of Americans who uncover things they no longer care about once the secrets are discovered. His 1985 White Noise is the story of a history professor with many secrets--as in being a Hitler scholar who can't speak German--and has several ex-wives who were involved in intelligence. The meaning of terrorism was dealt with in The Names (1982), set in Greece and the Middle East.

While Underground (1997) doesn't directly deal with espionage, it has much to say on the meaning of intelligence gathering during the Cold War. According to Laura Miller, Underground is the story of America's awakening from the dream of the Cold War, "which like most dreams seemed so convincing and compelling in the moment, only to strike us as utterly pointless later." It was but a contest akin to a baseball game. "Picking up a theme that runs through Libra," Miller says, "DeLillo suggests that the contest was little more than an excuse to lay plots and keep secrets, that the Cold War supported covert activities, not the other way around. Secrets are DeLillo's great passion, and the reason why his (male) characters love the Mafia, nuclear weapons research, intelligence work, conspiracy theories, dossiers and even baseball trivia so much." *4*

In Miller's view, characters fantasize about locating the Underworld where secrets are hidden and they study varieties of "Dietrologia, the science of what is behind something. For main character Nick Shay, God is powerful precisely because he keeps his secrets from us. But, echoing ideas expressed in Running Dog, uncovering the meanings of these secrets is not satisfying. "Like the precious enigmas of the Cold War, `all the banned words, the secrets kept in white-washed vaults, the half-forgotten plots,' Nick's sequestered soul turns out to be something outdated, pretentious and ultimately banal."

Other Contenders

If Libra is the best of the offerings for American spy literature, who else would be contenders for the top rankings? Norman Mailer's 1991 Harlot's Ghost springs to mind, an epic of over 1,000 pages. The story of the Hubbard family, involved in the CIA from the inception to 1963, was unfinished as Mailer claimed his opus was but part 1 of his saga. Unlike Libra, Mailer's canvas is much wider in its reach, a scope Robert Litell mirrored in The Company: A Novel of the CIA (2002) which also took on the story of the agency from its roots but took it through the fall of the Soviet Empire. Of these two, Litell's is a more straight-forward multi-generational story and was not intended for serious intellectual musings; Harlot's Ghost defies a full analysis as it is incomplete with missing background and hints at what is to come in part two. On it's own, Harlot should probably rank as Number Two in the Top 10 of American spy novels, but the jury must remain out until Mailer finishes his long-delayed project.

It can be said the most thoughtful American fiction has dealt with looking back to find the meaning of the Cold War and the costs of its covert games. But, for the most part, American spy writers from Tom Clancy, Charles McCarry, William Sapphire, to William Buckly have used the "furniture of espionage" to showcase ideologies supporting the need for these covert warriors, despite obvious misgivings with its misuse and fumbles. Most offer excellent reads and should be measured within the goals of genre writers. Few attempt to match the intentions of a DeLillo, and there is no dictum that says they need to try.

All this being said, it is useful to sort through the published contributions of the last 25 years as the Cold War novel is now historical fiction. Looking at the impact of the undercover world on American consciousness is important to an understanding of our culture, and Don DeLillo best exemplifies our search for meaning when truth is illusory, the secrets are more significant when not told, and what we believe about the powerful and manipulative in a vacuum of information. If there's a better contender for Number One American spy novel than Libra, it's hard to imagine what it would be.


1. Britton, Wesley. Beyond Bond: Spies in Film and Fiction. Westport, CT: Praeger Pub, 2005. DeLillo is discussed on pages 186-8.

2. Ironically, this Walker was a darling of the John Birch Society and Christian Crusade--for which FBI informant Matt Cvedic contributed articles. Samples of these are attached to my " They Were Communists for the FBI: The Stories of Matt Cvetic and Herbert Philbric" posted at this website.

In the same piece, there's a note about Herbert Philbric's thoughts on Oswald and the Paine family in Dallas which he included in one edition of his book, I Led Three Lives.

3. Qtd. From Beyond Bond. DeLillo's continuing interest in possible CIA involvement with the JFK assassination was demonstrated in a 2003 letter he co-signed with Norman Mailer, among others, requesting that the CIA release "all relevant records on the activities of a career CIA operations officer named George E. Joannides." For more information, see:

4. Miller, Laura. "One Nation, Under Cover." Salon magazine. Sept. 26, 1997. - 7k -


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