Some of my favorite lines in fiction come from Don DeLillo, like this, about 9/11, from Falling Man: “The second plane, by the time the second plane appears,” he said, “we’re all a little older and wiser.” Great writers have an uncanny knack of summing up what our subconscious had only hinted at revealing.
Here is another that sticks in my mind, I don’t remember from which book, possibly Ratner’s Star—a so-so book about a math prodigy: “Why are free-spirits always so fucking stupid?” It was one of those lines that I kept trying to forget, then kept reading again from the top of the page so I could be surprised by the sentence.
Libra had at least a dozen sentences worthy of memorization. Here are a few I underlined: “Her life became a dwindling history of moving to cheaper places” (5). “Beryl was at her writing desk clipping news items to send to friends. This was a passion she’d discovered recently like someone in middle life who finds she was born to show pedigreed dogs” (123). This gem: “A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not” (440). And one more, from Jack Ruby minutes before his own entry into History: “If he hurried he could wire twenty-five dollars to Brenda and then go shoot that bastard Oswald” (436).
Not all of the writing is as memorable, though. This fictionalized account of Lee Harvey Oswald’s strange convergence with American history suffers from a jittery postmodern habit of odd phrasing that often caused me to pause, such as: “Helen saw the blood take oval shape in the street” (410). That sentence is about a witness to Oswald’s shooting of a Dallas officer who stopped the fleeing assassin on his way to a theater where he would ultimately be captured. Technically and imagistically, the sentence is correct, but rhythmically it’s awkward and jarring. There are a lot of phrases like that and much of the dialogue is clipped and odd—enough to be annoying, but not enough to diminish an otherwise great book.
Oswald’s favorite alias of the half-dozen he regularly used was made by using his first name as his last, and his last two initials as his first, resulting in “O.H. Lee.” You can do the same thing at home, or wherever. I did: “D.W. Curtis.” You never know when you might need a good fake name.
Whatever his alias, he was buried in a sad ceremony in a grave under an assumed name on the headstone to discourage vandals. According to DeLillo’s imagining, an hour before he was shot, he was looking forward to his life in prison. He would write and think. His actions would reverberate through history. His life had just begun.
Oswald wouldn’t have lasted long in A-Ward. We have had, beginning Wednesday, what passes for a crisis. Our warden is a fifty-something, African-American woman with the frosty charm of an ice-skate blade—what you would probably expect of someone who has spent her working life in corrections. She showed up in A-Ward Wednesday and had a good, old-fashioned freak-out about the messy state of our Areas of Control: clothes lying on beds; many things besides our TV’s on our TV stands; shoes under wall-mounted lockers; bowls everywhere; shirts hung on our locker coat peg. Remember when your mom would stomp into your room and see dirt and messes that were completely invisible to you until she pointed them out? The warden brought the highest ranking man in A-Ward with her. He followed nervously sipping at a Styrofoam cup of coffee as she raged against the catastrophes before her. I felt sorry for him. We have had two big, ward-wide meetings since the warden’s visit. There are detailed notices taped and stapled everywhere with bold-font titles like, “CELL CONDITIONS EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY!”
Of course, a Presidential assassin would never end up in A-Ward, but wherever a living Oswald ended up (he would be 75 now), he would have someone bugging him about his cell conditions. My feeling is, he would have been a messy inmate. Rigid in his belief system (communism, a love for Castro), he would be of the criminal class just a step above complete anti-sociability—the life of a slightly haywire mind that doesn’t concern itself with outward appearances. It isn’t that he would rebelliously disregard those conditions, to him, they don’t exist because they are outside him.
I’m no psychologist—I can only go on what I’ve observed over the years. There are myriad variations on the criminal mind, but I imagine Wednesday’s encounter going something like this: He’s on his bunk reading The Daily Worker (to which he’s a frequent contributor) and the warden suddenly appears. She starts pointing out messes on and around his cubemate’s bunks. His heart flutters, readying himself for confrontation. The warden gets close enough that he can smell the soap she used that morning—nothing flowery or perfumey, more the smell of a hospital hallway. He folds his paper and watches her regarding his television stand, which he is sure will pass the warden’s cursory inspection. “What is this? What is this?” she says picking up a book, which is about him. That’s fine. But what really tears it all is that she doesn’t look at him. It’s as if he doesn’t exist. He’s a nobody on a bunk. She has no idea. But she will. O.H. in A-Ward picks up the book about himself and rares back, making himself known.