November 22 is of course the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. I haven’t read all 1,000 books about it, but I have five favorites:
Don DeLillo, Libra
“We will build theories that gleam like jade idols,” says DeLillo’s surrogate, a CIA historian writing the secret history of Dallas. “We will follow the bullet trajectories backwards to the lives that occupy the shadows, actual men who moan in their dreams.” In the novel, two CIA veterans of the Bay of Pigs seek to arouse anti-Cuban sentiment by organizing an assassination attempt by a Castro supporter. But in their plan, the assassin—with an identity “made out of ordinary pocket litter”—will miss. DeLillo, as John Leonard wrote in The Nation, “is an agnostic about reality.”
Stephen King, 11/22/63
When Jake steps thru the secret passage in Al’s Diner in Maine, it takes him back to 1958; can he stick around and change the course of history by stopping Oswald before November 22, 1963? And what if he discovers that the conspiracy theorists were right, and JFK was shot by someone else? Eight hundred and fifty wonderful pages of time travel romance and adventure in a world where the food tastes better and the music is more fun—and where history itself resists change, with all its might.
Robert Caro, LBJ: The Passage of Power chapters 11–13
The assassination seen through LBJ’s eyes, one car back in the motorcade in Dealey Plaza: after Oswald’s first shot, Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood shouted, “Get down! Get down!” Then LBJ “was on the floor, his face on the floor, with the weight of a big man lying on top of him,” as the two cars sped toward Parkland Hospital. When they arrived, Agent Youngblood said, ‘I want you and Mrs. Johnson to stick with me and the other agents as close as you can. We are going into the hospital and we aren’t gonna stop for anything or anybody. Do you understand?’ ‘Okay, pardner, I understand,’ Lyndon Johnson said.”
Norman Mailer, Oswald’s Tale
Mailer in his reporter-researcher mode: at age 70, he spent six cold months in Minsk, where Oswald had lived with his Russian wife Marina for thirty months starting in 1960. Mailer interviewed fifty people and used the KGB’s tapes from Oswald’s bugged apartment to paint a vivid picture of the dullness and misery of their lives. Mailer said he started “with a prejudice in favor of the conspiracy theorists,” but he found Oswald to have been a lonely Marxist megalomaniac and an angry loser. In the end, Robert Stone wrote in The New York Review of Books, Mailer had to conclude that “absurdity and common death gape far wider beneath us than high conspiracy, tragedy, or sacrifice.”
Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History
An encyclopedia of assassination conspiracies, with each and every one refuted, “revealed as a fraud on the American public.” One thousand six hundred oversize pages, plus a CD with 1,100 pages of notes, written by the legendary criminal prosecutor. “No group of top-level conspirators,” he argues, “would ever employ someone as unstable and unreliable as Oswald to commit the biggest murder in history, no such group would ever provide its hit man with a twelve-dollar rifle to get the job done, and any such group would help its hit man escape or have a car waiting to drive him to his death, not allow him to be wandering out in the street, catching cabs and buses to get away, as we know Oswald did.”
Jon Wiener teaches U.S. history at UC Irvine.