- - Monday, September 16, 2013


By Peter Savodnik
Basic Books, $27.99, 288 pages

In a recent New Republic article titled “Moscow Is No Place for a Defector,” Peter Savodnik mentions what he believes to be Lee Harvey Oswald’s primary motivation for defecting to the Soviet Union — not politics, not money, not women: he just “really wanted to get away from his mother.”

It might have been well for Mr. Savodnik to leave it there. But in a publisher’s blink, we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of Oswald’s assassination of John F. Kennedy, requiring authors to produce a spate of books, all nibbling around the edges for new approaches to what has been continually analyzed and interpreted for half a century.

Who better than Peter Savodnik to take on such a chore? He knows Russia and Russians, has lived and worked in the country, written thoughtful and well-reported articles for a variety of publications and, according to his home page, has studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, which should add intellectual depth to his analyses.

True. However, it may also be responsible for what often seems a straining for existential significance. The Camus-like title itself (“The Stranger” was taken) doesn’t quite work, with an “interloper” defined as one who intrudes, but “escape” being what Mr. Savodnik sees as Oswald’s goal.

Nor is Mr. Savodnik himself comfortable with the word, as when he too-frequently pushes it into various ungainly verbal constructs, at times lapsing into something close to gibberish: “Oswald was made more aware of his outsidernessness, his status qua interloper.”

Title aside, it’s also no help that no one has ever succeeded in writing anything at all interesting about Oswald himself, with assassination books that people actually read exploring various conspiracies and treating Oswald as a tool. The basic problem is that Oswald was a semi-educated, unattractive and inept sociopath who hardly seemed capable of carrying out a complex assassination plot without help, to say nothing of being a mediocre marksman who barely qualified at the Marine Corps rifle range, but apparently brought off an extraordinary feat of marksmanship in Dallas.

But Mr. Savodnik has no time for conspiracies — whether involving ballistics (explored most recently by Stephen Hunter in his “The Third Bullet”), political ambitions (LBJ), a third man, grassy knolls, Mafia, Castro, KGB, even the South Vietnamese (according to Charles McCarry in “Tears of Autumn,” it was an act of vengeance, exacted for the execution of South Vietnam’s President Diem.) For Mr. Savodnik, like the Warren Commission, it’s Lee Harvey Oswald, the lone gunman.

To explain why, Mr. Savodnik replows the well-worked ground of the early years and travels to Russia, where Oswald lived from 1959 to 1962, to interview some of the still-living people who knew Oswald there.

But the remaining former acquaintances tell him nothing new. Nor is there much in the CIA and KGB documents he studies, beyond what Norman Mailer uncovered during his six-month stay in Minsk, talking to many of the same people and reading the same documents for his 791-page “Oswald’s Tale,” which numbers among Mailer’s least successful, least read and least readable books. Mailer set out to find in Minsk what motivated Oswald, but never did. Nor does Mr. Savodnik.

Mr. Savodnik also looks to the early years for answers, especially Oswald’s brush with military life, again touching on his favorite motivation. “He had joined the Marines to escape his mother, and this was the best way he knew.”

But the Marines, Mr. Savodnik writes, as if there were something wrong in all this, “were trained in boxing and judo and were forced to live inside very narrow parameters: they spoke, got out of bed, and ate when someone else said they could. And always — always — there was the sense of a lingering brutality, the possibility of a fight, bloodshed, the brandishing of a blunt masculinity.”

Thank God for that, an ex-Marine might respond, while also noting that overwrought prose combined with excessive forced alliteration is often a sure sign of a desperate writer pushing a weak thesis.

That’s one of many reasons for the continued existence of conspiracy theories. But Mr. Savodnik dismisses them all, instead working in various psychological and sociological analyses. At one point, in one of those forced faux-existential pronouncements, he blames Oswald’s “interloping” in part on our society’s anomalies, “a tragedy, for which the contemporary human, with his rationalist pretensions and his obsessions with technology and himself, is ill suited.”

Perhaps, although that hardly seems to apply to the Oswald case, nor does it provide the answer Mr. Savodnik promised us: Why did Lee Harvey Oswald murder President Kennedy?

We’ll have to wait for the answer. But if Mr. Savodnik’s theorizing is at all valid, then Lee Harvey Oswald, having done great and unalterable damage to our nation, and with the help of Jack Ruby, did finally achieve a primary goal.

He got away from his mother. Just not soon enough.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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