Oswald an an­ti­hero with­out a cause

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Greg Lock­ert

FOR those hold­ing to an Oliver Stone ver­sion of Lee Har­vey Oswald as a pawn of the mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex, this book is bound to dis­ap­point. The In­ter­loper is one of a shelf-load of tomes keyed to Novem­ber’s 50th an­niver­sary of the as­sas­si­na­tion of John F. Kennedy. Rather than a part of a vast con­spir­acy planned out by the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic elite to rid the United States of its pres­i­dent, au­thor Peter Savod­nik’s Oswald is a hap­less, dull-wit­ted char­ac­ter act­ing on his own. He’s a loner, a rebel, an an­ti­hero — all with­out a cause. Oswald is an in­ter­loper — mov­ing from place to place search­ing for a new home and new iden­tity. All his moves end in fail­ure, whether they in­volve join­ing the U.S. Marines, mov­ing to the Soviet Union or var­i­ous lo­ca­tions in the U.S. He never finds what he is look­ing for — and it em­bit­ters him, lead­ing him to com­mit one of the most fa­mous homi­cides in U.S his­tory. For­merly based in Moscow, the nowWash­ing­ton-based Savod­nik is well­trav­elled and well-versed on the for­mer Soviet Union. He has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on the sub­ject and has a master’s in phi­los­o­phy from the Univer­sity of Chicago. His ar­ti­cles have ap­peared in Harper’s, Time, the Wash­ing­ton Post and The New Repub­lic. Savod­nik’s book is based on three premises: that Oswald acted alone in killing JFK; that the ques­tion of why Oswald killed JFK and what it says about him, the U.S. and the Cold War has been in­ad­e­quately stud­ied; and that Oswald’s three years in the Soviet Union from 1959 to 1962 are cen­tral to his de­ci­sion to kill the pres­i­dent. Much of the book cen­tres on Oswald’s time in Minsk, then the main city of the Belarus Soviet So­cial­ist Repub­lic. Oswald is sent there by Soviet au­thor­i­ties and given a job in a fac­tory. The au­thor’s nar­ra­tive is fas­ci­nat­ing and prob­a­bly eye-open­ing for most read­ers, as the vast ma­jor­ity of ac­counts of Oswald fo­cus al­most en­tirely on that fate­ful day in Novem­ber 1963 in Dal­las when he shot JFK. But ex­actly what Oswald was do­ing while liv­ing in the Soviet Union be­fore that, and why he was there, has sel­dom been ex­plored. Read­ers are given a lengthy ride through the shal­low in­tel­lec­tual mind of Oswald and his naïve at­trac­tion to Marx­ism. Oswald’s spell­ing-chal­lenged writ­ings are quoted of­ten. He de­vel­ops a series of relationships in Minsk, many of them ro­man­tic (in­clud­ing a wife), but Savod­nik is of­ten not sure which of his friends and lovers were agents or in­form­ers sent by Soviet au­thor­i­ties to keep watch on the ec­cen­tric Amer­i­can. Savod­nik prom­ises an­swers to the mys­tery of Oswald’s homi­ci­dal ac­tions. But by the time the reader is three-quar­ters the way through his book, none of those an­swers comes close to be­ing re­vealed. We be­come well-acquainted with Oswald’s dys­func­tional, and of­ten piti­ful, life. We see the odds there was any broader con­spir­acy to kill JFK are zero. But clear rea­sons to kill a glam­orous pres­i­dent? None.

It’s only in the last chap­ter and epi­logue where Savod­nik loosely and un­con­vinc­ingly con­nects Oswald’s char­ac­ter and ex­pe­ri­ences in the Soviet Union to the killing of JFK. Oswald the in­ter­loper, the an­ti­hero, the shal­low ide­o­logue, has failed in his quest for be­long­ing and pur­pose. So he mur­ders the pres­i­dent. Does Savod­nik suc­ceed in his quest to solve the puz­zle that is Oswald? Only par­tially. But it’s not due to lack of ef­fort, re­search or writ­ing abil­ity. His book is em­i­nently read­able with­out aca­demic dry­ness or dra­matic over­state­ment.

It’s just that Oswald’s rea­sons for the as­sas­si­na­tion of JFK in 1963 are a mys­tery that can prob­a­bly never be com­pletely solved. Savod­nik de­serves credit for at­tempt­ing to do so with­out re­sort­ing to con­spir­acy the­o­ries and para­noid ide­ol­ogy.

Greg Lock­ert is a Free Press copy ed­i­tor.

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