The conspiracy theorists may have to find room for Norman Mailer. After nearly 800 pages of Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery), after describing the JFK assassination as ''the greatest mountain of mystery in the twentieth century,'' after describing the Warren Commission report as ''a dead whale decomposing on a beach,'' and after some strenuous speculation about the CIA and the Mafia, he drops, with a hollow thud, his own bomb: ''If one's personal inclinations would find Oswald innocent, or at least part of a conspiracy, one's gloomy verdict, nonetheless, is that Lee...probably did it alone.''
But why the gloom? Isn't it reassuring to think that there was no vast, sinister, pervasive Oliver Stone-caliber conspiracy to kill JFK and cover it up, involving the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, Congress, the Bureau of Weights and Measures, and the National Association of Retired Beekeepers? Not for Mailer, because the disparity between Oswald's character (neurotic twerp) and Oswald's consequence (changing the course of American history) gives him a worse case of vertigo than the most convoluted conspiracy scenario.
Oswald bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to all those outsiders, living on or just over the edge, that Mailer has been trying for years to turn into existential heroes. So he makes Oswald a deeper, more imposing figure than he has seemed to be. It doesn't work. Yet the book that Mailer has poised on this flawed premise is still full of interest. He's good at getting a sense of quirky individuals and the societies that spawned them in this case, the Khrushchev-era USSR and an America that, with one push from a neurotic, lonely man, was starting to come apart. B