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In this powerful, eerily convincing fictional speculation on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Don DeLillo chronicles Lee Harvey Oswald's odyssey from troubled teenager to a man of precarious stability who imagines himself an agent of history. When "history" presents itself in the form of two disgruntled CIA operatives who decide that an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the president will galvanize the nation against communism, the scales are irrevocably tipped.

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In this powerful, eerily convincing fictional speculation on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Don DeLillo chronicles Lee Harvey Oswald's odyssey from troubled teenager to a man of precarious stability who imagines himself an agent of history. When "history" presents itself in the form of two disgruntled CIA operatives who decide that an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the president will galvanize the nation against communism, the scales are irrevocably tipped.

A gripping, masterful blend of fact and fiction, alive with meticulously portrayed characters both real and created, Libra is a grave, haunting, and brilliant examination of an event that has become an indelible part of the American psyche.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
DeLillo's ninth novel takes its title from Lee Harvey Oswald's zodiac sign, the sign of "balance.'' And, as in all his fiction (Running Dog, The Names, White Noise), DeLillo's perfectly realized aim is to balance plot, theme and structure so that the novel he builds around Oswald (an unlikely and disturbingly sympathetic protagonist) provokes the reader with its clever use of history, its dramatic pacing and its immaculate and detailed construction. The plot of the novel is history itself; and history, here, is a system of plots and conspiracies: the U.S. government has plotted to invade Cuba, and there are CIA agents who want retribution against President Kennedy for his halfhearted support of the Bay of Pigs operation; there are Cubans plotting revenge on JFK for the same reason and for, they fear, his plot to forge a rapprochement with Castro; there is a lone gunman, Oswald, who is conspired upon by history and circumstance, and who himself plots against the status quo. The novel bears dissection on many levels, but is, taken whole, a seamless, brilliant work of compelling fiction. What makes Libra so unsettling is DeLillo's ability to integrate literary criticism into the narrative, commenting throughout on the nature and conventions of fiction itself without disturbing the flow of his story. The characters are storytellers: CIA agents and Cuban immigrants retell old plots in their minds and write fantasy plots to keep themselves alive; Nicholas Branch, also of the CIA, has spent 15 years writing an in-house history of the assassination that will never uncover its deepest secrets and that in any case no one will read; Oswald, defecting to the Soviet Union, hopes to write short stories of contemporary American lifedyslexic, he is aware of words as pictures of themselves not simply as name tags for the material world. DeLillo interweaves fact and fiction as he draws us inexorably toward Dallas, November 22. The real people (Jack Ruby, Oswald, his mother and Russian wife) are retrieved from history and made human, their stories involving and absorbing; the imagined characters are placed into history as DeLillo imagines it to have come to pass. By subtly juxtaposing the blinding intensity of DeLillo's own crystal-clear, composite version of events against the blurred reality of the Zapruder film and other artifacts of the actual assassination, Libra ultimately becomes a comment on the entire body of DeLillo's work: Why do we understand fiction to reflect truth? Why do we trust a novelist to tell us the whole story? And what is the truth that fiction reveals? BOMC (Book of the Month Club) main selection; QPBC selection.
Charles McGrath
....[T]ragic and dramatic as are the catastrophes of the great classical tragedies, but with an entirely American twist. -- The New York Time Books of the Century
From the Publisher
"Extraordinary intensity...unforgiving thoroughness...DeLillo has created a thriller of the most profound sort...Libra is electrifying, a book alive with suggestion." —Chicago Tribune

"Libra operates at a dizzyingly high level of intensity throughout; it's that true fictional rarity—a novel of admirable depth and relevance that's also a terrific page-turner." —USA Today

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140156041
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/28/1991
  • Series: Contemporary American Fiction Series
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 442,697
  • Product dimensions: 5.08 (w) x 7.78 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Meet the Author

Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo published his first short story when he was twenty-three years old. He has since written twelve novels, including White Noise (1985) which won the National Book Award. It was followed by Libra (1988), his novel about the assassination of President Kennedy, and by Mao II, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

In 1997, he published the bestselling Underworld, and in 1999 he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, given to a writer whose work expresses the theme of the freedom of the individual in society; he was the first American author to receive it. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Growing up in his working class Bronx neighborhood in the 1940s and '50s, Don De Lillo was far more interested in sports than in books. A listless student, he did not develop an interest in reading until he was 18 and working a summer job as a parking attendant. Desperate to fill in the long, boring hours of downtime, he discovered the literature of Faulkner, Joyce, and Hemingway. He attended Fordham University and worked in advertising for several years before seriously pursuing a writing career.

When De Lillo's first novel, Americana, was published in 1971, it received modest reviews. Seven books followed over the next 14 years, steadily generating more critical praise but few sales. Then, in 1985, he hit pay dirt with White Noise, a brooding postmodern masterpiece about a Midwestern college professor and his family in the aftermath of an airborne toxic accident. It proved to be De Lillo's breakthrough, earning him both a National Book Award and an avid cult following.

Since then, De Lillo has gone on to produce a string of superb "literary" novels that fairly brim with big ideas yet also capture the essence of contemporary culture in all its infuriating banality. Cited by younger writers like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace as a major influence, De Lillo remains a reserved and private, albeit gracious and genteel man who seems a bit uncomfortable with fame.

Among the many honors De Lillo has received are the Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize for Libra (1989); the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Mao II (1991); and the Jerusalem Prize, William Dean Howells Medal, and the Riccardo Bacchelli International Award for his magnum opus Underworld (1997). In addition, three of his novels received high marks on a 2006 survey sponsored by The New York Times to name the single best work of American fiction of the last 25 years.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Cleo Birdwell
    2. Hometown:
      Westchester County, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 20, 1936
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York City
    1. Education:
      Fordham University, 1958

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In the Bronx

    This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they'd been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.

    Workmen carried lanterns along adjacent tracks. He kept a watch for sewer rats. A tenth of a second was all it took to see a thing complete. Then the express stations, the creaky brakes, people bunched like refugees. They came wagging through the doors, banged against the rubber edges, inched their way in, were quickly pinned, looking out past the nearest heads into that practiced oblivion.

    It had nothing to do with him. He was riding just to ride.

    One forty-ninth, the Puerto Ricans. One twenty-fifth, the Negroes. At Forty-second Street, after a curve that held a scream right out to the edge, came the heaviest push of all, briefcases, shopping bags, school bags, blind people, pickpockets, drunks. It did not seem odd to him that the subway held more compelling things than the famous city above. There was nothing important out there, in the broad afternoon, that he could not find in purer form in these tunnels beneath the streets.

    They watched TV, mother and son, in the basement room. She'd bought a tinted filter for their Motorola. The top third of the screen was permanently blue, the middle third was pink, the band across the bottom was a wavy green. He told her he'd played hooky again, ridden the trains out to Brooklyn, where a man wore a coat with a missing arm. Playing the hook, they called it here. Marguerite believed it was not so awful, missing a day now and then. The other kids ragged him all the time and he had problems keeping up, a turbulence running through him, the accepted fact of a fatherless boy. Like the time he waved a penknife at John Edward's bride. Not that Marguerite thought her daughter-in-law was worth getting into a famous feud about. She was not a person of high caliber and it was just an argument over whittling wood, over scraps of wood he'd whittled onto the floor of her apartment, where they were trying to be a family again. So there it was. They were not wanted anymore and they moved to the basement room in the Bronx, the kitchen and the bedroom and everything together, where blue heads spoke to them from the TV screen.

    When it got cold they banged the pipes to let the super know. They had a right to decent heat.

    She sat and listened to the boy's complaints. She couldn't fry him a platter of chops any time he wanted but she wasn't tight with the lunch money and even gave him extra for a funnybook or subway ride. All her life she'd had to deal with the injustice of these complaints. Edward walked out on her when she was pregnant with John Edward because he didn't want to support a child. Robert dropped dead on her one steamy summer day on Alvar Street, in New Orleans, when she was carrying Lee, which meant she had to find work. Then there was grinning Mr. Ekdahl, the best, the only hope, an older man who earned nearly a thousand dollars a month, an engineer. But he committed cunning adulteries, which she finally caught him out at, recruiting a boy to deliver a fake telegram and then opening the door on a woman in a negligee. This didn't stop him from scheming a divorce that cheated her out of a decent settlement. Her life became a dwindling history of moving to cheaper places.

    Lee saw a picture in the Daily News of Greeks diving off a pier for some sacred cross, downtown. Their priests have beards.

    "Think I don't know what I'm supposed to be around here."

    "I've been all day on my feet," she said.

    "I'm the one you drag along."

    "I never said any such."

    "Think I like making my own dinner."

    "I work. I work. Don't I work?"

    "Barely finding food."

    "I'm not a type that sits around boo-hoo."

    Thursday nights he watched the crime shows. Racket Squad, Dragnet, etc. Beyond the barred window, snow driving slantwise through the streetlight. Northern cold and damp. She came home and told him they were moving again. She'd found three rooms on one hundred and something street, near the Bronx Zoo, which might be nice for a growing boy with an interest in animals.

    "Natures spelled backwards," the TV said.

    It was a railroad flat in a red-brick tenement, five stories, in a street of grim exhibits. A retarded boy about Lee's age walked around in a hippity-hop limp, carrying a live crab he'd stolen from the Italian market and pushing it in the faces of smaller kids. This was a routine sight. Rock fights were routine. Guys with zip guns they'd made in shop class were becoming routine. From his window one night he watched two boys put the grocery store cat in a burlap sack and swing the sack against a lamppost. He tried to time his movements against the rhythm of the street. Stay off the street from noon to one, three to five. Learn the alleys, use the dark. He rode the subways. He spent serious time at the zoo.

    There were older men who did not sit on the stoop out front until they spread their handkerchiefs carefully on the gray stone.

    His mother was short and slender, going gray now just a little. She liked to call herself petite in a joke she really meant. They watched each other eat. He taught himself to play chess, from a book, at the kitchen table. Nobody knew how hard it was for him to read. She bought figurines and knickknacks and talked on the subject of her life. He heard her footsteps, heard her key in the lock.

    "Here is another notice," Marguerite said, "where they threaten a hearing. Have you been hiding these? They want a truancy hearing, which it says is the final notice. It states you haven't gone to school at all since we moved. Not one day. I don't know why it is I have to learn these things through the U.S. mails. It's a blow, it's a shock to my system."

    "Why should I go to school? They don't want me there and I don't want to be there. It works out just right."

    "They are going to crack down. It is not like home. They are going to bring us into court."

    "I don't need help going into court. You just go to work like any other day."

    "I'd have given the world to stay home and raise my children and you know it. This is a sore spot with me. Don't you forget, I'm the child of one parent myself. I know the meanness of the situation. I worked in shops back home where I was manager."

    Here it comes. She would forget he was here. She would talk for two hours in the high piping tone of someone reading to a child. He watched the DuMont test pattern.

    "I love my United States but I don't look forward to a courtroom situation, which is what happened with Mr. Ekdahl, accusing me of uncontrollable rages. They will point out that they have cautioned us officially. I will tell them I'm a person with no formal education who holds her own in good company and keeps a neat house. We are a military family. This is my defense."

    The zoo was three blocks away. There were traces of ice along the fringes of the wildfowl pond. He walked down to the lion house, hands deep in his jacket pockets. No one there. The smell hit him full-on, a warmth and a force, the great carnivore reek of raw beef and animal fur and smoky piss.

    When he heard the heavy doors open, the loud voices, he knew what to expect. Two kids from P.S. 44. A chunky kid named Scalzo in a pea coat and clacking shoes with a smaller, runny-nose comedian Lee knew only by his street name, which was Nicky Black. Here to pester the animals, create the routine disturbances that made up their days. He could almost feel their small joy as they spotted him, a little jump of muscle in the throat.

    Scalzo's voice banged through the high chamber.

    "They call your name every day in class. But what kind of name is Lee? That's a girl's name or what?"

    "His name is Tex," Nicky Black said.

    "He's a cowpoke," Scalzo said.

    "You know what cowpokes do, don't you? Tell him, Tex."

    "They poke the cows," Scalzo said.

    Lee went out the north door, a faint smile on his face. He walked down the steps and around to the ornate cages of the birds of prey. He didn't mind fighting. He was willing to fight. He'd fought with the kid who threw rocks at his dog, fought and won, beat him good, whipped him, bloodied his nose. That was on Vermont Street, in Covington, when he had a dog. But this baiting was a torment. They would get on him, lose interest, circle back fitfully, picking away, scab-picking, digging down.

    Scalzo drifted toward a group of older boys and girls huddled smoking around a bench. Lee heard someone say, "A two-tone Rocket Olds with wire wheels."

    The king vulture sat on its perch, naked head and neck. There is a vulture that breaks ostrich eggs by hurling stones with its beak. Nicky Black was standing next to him. The name was always used in full, never just Nicky or Black.

    "Playing the hook is one thing. I say all right. But you don't show your face in a month."

    It sounded like a compliment.

    "You shoot pool, Tex? What do you do, you're home all day. Pocket pool, right? Think fast."

    He faked a punch to Lee's groin, drew back.

    "But how come you live in the North? My brother was stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia. He says they have to put a pebble in their hand down south so they know left face from right face. This is true or what?"

    He mock-sparred, wagging his head, breathing rapidly through his nose.

    "My brother's in the Coast Guard," Lee told him. "That's why we're here. He's stationed in Ellis Island. Port security it's called."

    "My brother's in Korea now."

    "My other brother's in the Marines. They might send him to Korea. That's what I'm worried about."

    "It's not the Koreans you have to worry about," Nicky Black said. "It's the fucking Chinese."

    There was reverence in his voice, a small note of woe. He wore torn Keds and a field jacket about as skimpy as Lee's windbreaker. He was runty and snuffling and the left half of his face had a permanent grimace.

    "I know where to get some sweet mickeys off the truck. We go roast them in the lot near Belmont. They have sweet mickeys in the South down there? I know where to get these books where you spin the pages fast, you see people screwing. The kid knows these things. The kid quits school the minute he's sixteen. I mean look out."

    He blew a grain of tobacco from the tip of his tongue.

    "The kid gets a job in construction. First thing, he buys ten shirts with Mr. B collars. He saves his money, before you know it he owns a car. He simonizes the car once a month. The car gets him laid. Who's better than the kid?"

    Scalzo was the type that sauntered over, shoulders swinging. The taps on his shoes scraped lightly on the rough asphalt.

    "But how come you never talk to me, Tex?"

    "Let's hear you drawl," Nicky Black said.

    "I say all right."

    "Talk to Richie. He's talking nice."

    "But let's hear you drawl. No shit. I been looking forward."

    Lee smiled, started walking past the group hunched over the park bench, lighting cigarettes in the wind, the fifteen-year-old girls with bright lipstick, the guys in pegged pants with saddle stitching and pistol pockets. He walked up to the main court and took the path that led to the gate nearest his street.

    Scalzo and Nicky Black were ten yards behind.

    "Hey fruit."

    "He sucks Clorets."

    "Bad-breath kissing sweet in seconds."

    "One and a two."

    "I say all right."

    "One two cha cha cha."

    "He don't know dick."

    "I mean look out."

    "But how come he won't talk to me?"

    "But what do we have to do?"

    "Smoke a Fag-a-teeeer."

    "Ex-treeeem-ly mild."

    "I say all right."

    "But talk to us."

    "We're talking bad or what?"

    "But say something."

    "Think fast, Tex."

    "I say all right."

    At the gate a man in a lumber jacket and necktie asked him his name. Lee said he didn't talk to Yankees. The man pointed to a spot on the pavement, meaning that's where you stand until we get this straight. Then he walked over to the other two boys, talked to them for a moment, gesturing toward Lee. Nicky Black said nothing. Scalzo shrugged. The man identified himself as a truant officer. Scalzo tugged at his crotch, looking the man right in the eye. Like so what, mister. Nicky Black did a little cold-day dance, hands in pockets, giving a buck-tooth grin.

    Out on the street the man escorted Lee to a green-and-white squad ear. Lee was impressed. There was a cop behind the wheel. He drove with one hand, keeping the hand that cupped a cigarette down between his knees.

    Marguerite stayed up late watching the test pattern.

    Lee purely loves animals so the zoo was a blessing but they sent him downtown to a building where the nut doctors pick at him twenty-four hours a day. Youth House. Puerto Ricans by the galore. He has to take showers in that jabber. John Edward tried to get him to talk to the nut doctor but Lee won't talk to John Edward ever since he opened the pocketknife on John Edward's bride. They have got him in an intake dormitory. They talk to him about is he a nail-biter. Does he have religious affiliation and whatnot? Is he disruptive in class? He doesn't know the slang, your honor. The place is full of New York-type boys. They see my son in Levis, with an accent. Well many boys wear Levis. What is strange about Levis? But they get on him about does he think he's Billy the Kid. This is a boy who played Monopoly with his brothers and had a normal report card when we lived with Mr. Ekdahl, on Eighth Avenue, in Fort Worth. It is a question of adjusting, judge. It was only a whittling knife and he did not actually cut her and now they don't talk, brothers. This is a boy who studies the lives of animals, the eating and sleeping habits of animals, animals in their burrows and caves. What is it called, lairs? He is advanced, your honor. I have said from early childhood he liked histories and maps. He knows uncanny things without the normal schooling. This boy slept in my bed out of lack of space until he was nearly eleven and we have lived the two of us in the meanest of small rooms when his brothers were in the orphans' home or the military academy or the Marines and the Coast Guard. Most boys think their daddy hung the moon. But the poor man just crashed to the lawn and that was the end of the only happy part of my adult life. It is Marguerite and Lee ever since. We are a mother and son. It has never been a question of neglect. They say he is truanting is the way they state it. They state to me he stays home all day to watch TV. They are talking about a court clinic. They are talking about the Protestant Big Brothers for working with. He already has big brothers. What does he need more brothers for? There is the Salvation Army that is mentioned. They take the wrappers off the candy bars I bring my son. They turn my pocketbook all out. This treatment is downgrading. It is not my fault if he dresses below the level. What is the fuss about? A boy playing hooky in Texas is not a criminal who is put away for study. They have made my boy a matter on the calendar. They expect me to ask their permission to go back home. We are not the common drifters they paint us out to be. How on God's earth, and I am a Christian, does a neglectful mother make such a decent home, which I am willing to show as evidence, with bright touches and not a thing out of place. I am not afraid to make food last. This is no disgrace, to cook up beans and cornbread and make it last. The tightfisted one was Mr. Ekdahl, on Granbury Road, in Benbrook, when the adulteries started. But I am the one accused of excesses and rages. I took back my name, your honor. Marguerite Claverie Oswald. We moved to Willing Street then, by the railroad tracks.

    He did Human Figure Drawings, which were judged impoverished.

    The psychologist found him to be in the upper range of Bright Normal Intelligence.

    The social worker wrote, "Questioning elicited the information that he feels almost as if there is a veil between him and other people through which they cannot reach him, but he prefers this veil to remain intact."

    The schoolteacher reported that he sailed paper planes around the room.

    He returned to the seventh grade until classes ended. In summer dusk the girls lingered near the benches on Bronx Park South. Jewish girls, Italian girls in tight skirts, girls with ankle bracelets, their voices murmurous with the sound of boys' names, with song lyrics, little remarks he didn't always understand. They talked to him when he walked by, making him smile in his secret way.

    Oh a woman with beer on her breath, on the bus coming home from the beach. He feels the tired salty sting in his eyes of a day in the sun and water.

    "The trouble leaving you with my sister," Marguerite said, "she had too many children of her own. Plus the normal disputes of family. That meant I had to employ Mrs. Roach, on Pauline Street, when you were two. But I came home one day and saw she whipped you, raising welts on your legs, and we moved to Sherwood Forest Drive."

    Heat entered the flat through the walls and windows, seeped down from the tar roof. Men on Sundays carried pastry in white boxes. An Italian was murdered in a candy store, shot five times, his brains dashing the wall near the comic-book rack. Kids trooped to the store from all around to see the traces of grayish spatter. His mother sold stockings in Manhattan.

    A woman on the street, completely ordinary, maybe fifty years old, wearing glasses and a dark dress, handed him a leaflet at the foot of the El steps. Save the Rosenbergs, it said. He tried to give it back, thinking he would have to pay for it, but she'd already turned away. He walked home, hearing a lazy radio voice doing a ballgame. Plenty of room, folks. Come on out for the rest of this game and all of the second. It was a Sunday, Mother's Day, and he folded the leaflet neatly and put it in his pocket to save for later.

    There is a world inside the world.

    He rode the subway up to Inwood, out to Sheepshead Bay. There were serious men down there, rocking in the copper light. He saw chinamen, beggars, men who talked to God, men who lived on the trains, day and night, bruised, with matted hair, asleep in patient bundles on the wicker seats. He jumped the turnstiles once. He rode between cars, gripping the heavy chain. He felt the friction of the ride in his teeth. They went so fast sometimes. He liked the feeling they were on the edge. How do we know the motorman's not insane? It gave him a funny thrill. The wheels touched off showers of blue-white sparks, tremendous hissing bursts, on the edge of no-control. People crowded in, every shape face in the book of faces. They pushed through the doors, they hung from the porcelain straps. He was riding just to ride. The noise had a power and a human force. The dark had a power. He stood at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The view down the tracks was a form of power. It was a secret and a power. The beams picked out secret things. The noise was pitched to a fury he located in the mind, a satisfying wave of rage and pain.

    Never again in his short life, never in the world, would he feel this inner power, rising to a shriek, this secret force of the soul in the tunnels under New York.

Excerpted from LIBRA by Don DeLillo. Copyright © 1988 by Don DeLillo. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Reading Group Guide


Libra, Don DeLillo's ninth novel, is a fictional account of how the lives of Lee Harvey Oswald and John Fitzgerald Kennedy intersected in Dallas. Like most works of historical fiction, the book plunges attentive readers back into the history and politics of the era through its intermingling of real and fictional characters, events actual and imagined.

In the events leading to the catastrophe at Daley Plaza, we are confronted by a stew of historical interpretation that has continued to froth and bubble since November 22, 1963. Scholars and cranks of many persuasions have tried to sort out the conflicting testimonies; hundreds of narratives now compete for attention, alternately identifying the CIA, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, Fidel Castro, anti-Castro Cuban insurgents, and the Mafia as shadowy players in the game. One of the plotters in DeLillo's novel, a disgruntled CIA veteran burned by the Bay of Pigs debacle, imagines, "Someday this operation would be studied at the highest levels of intelligence in Langley and the Pentagon" (p. 147). Nicholas Branch, hired by the CIA to write a secret history of the event, confirms that judgment with his observation, "Here is a crime that clearly yields material for deep interpretation" (p. 434).

The assassination of presidents is nearly as American an institution as apple pie: four presidents have been killed, and six others narrowly escaped violent death. The raw statistics of this reality violate the self-image of the United States as a virtuous republic; indeed, our presidents' chances of encountering a murderous assailant are a little less than one in four. Yet the murder of JFK is unique among traumas that have gripped the American collective imagination, largely because questions have dogged the official Warren Commission report since its release in 1964. Was the killing the work of a lone gunman, or of several? The killing was planned, but by whom, and what motive could have seized the mind—or minds—of its planners? Toward the end of Libra, one conspirator is struck with awe by the audacity of the plans to kill the president of the United States: "Wayne was amazed that an idea like this could even exist in America" (p. 380).

But, of course, ideas like this can and do exist in America. DeLillo's novel, like Dreiser's An American Tragedy or Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, suggests that the multiplicity of ideas spawned by the republic seldom narrows down to one theme or note. Heroism, courage, seething resentment, and the unpredictable crack of the rifle—all kinds of possibilities inhabit the vast panoply of American experience. But it is DeLillo who, more than any other contemporary American writer, comprehends the peculiar signature of evil in a media-saturated age. Midway through the novel, Nicholas Branch muses on the aftereffects of those pivotal moments in Dallas: "After Oswald, men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities, suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers" (p. 181).

Some critics have accused DeLillo of fueling an unhealthy American obsession with conspiracy theories, of adding to the frequently irresponsible speculation that surrounds the shooting of the thirty-fifth president. But Libra extends far beyond official history. DeLillo insists that the novel be read as fiction; in the author's note at the novel's conclusion, he says he has "made no attempt to furnish factual answers to any questions raised by the assassination." Elsewhere, commenting on the contagious popularity of conspiracy theories, especially those promoted by Hollywood, DeLillo dismisses enthusiasts for this kind of speculation as liable to "a particular type of nostalgia: the nostalgia for a master plan, the conspiracy which explains absolutely everything."

DeLillo's novel moves episodically and nonchronologically through events ranging from Lee Harvey Oswald's childhood in the Bronx to the actual mayhem of Kennedy's death in Jackie's blood-drenched lap. We eavesdrop on the meetings of a ragtag bunch of former intelligence operatives and cowboys, and listen to Oswald's voluble mother, Marguerite, offer parental perspective on a son gone bad. If the novel proves psychologically satisfying, it is not because it provides a blueprint of what really happened, but because the inner lives of its many characters take shape and substance in the closely rendered details of everyday life. Without surrendering to a simple or mechanical account of causality, DeLillo shows us with careful nuance why people do what they do at any particular moment.

DeLillo's Oswald is a Libra trying to figure out which way to go in the balance of things: will he act out of a sense of inner-directedness or merely react to the strange chain of events that seems like fate? In this character, we are confronted with the mystery at the heart of Kennedy's assassination. While it illuminates that mystery, Libra simultaneously deepens it. And becoming an American, DeLillo seems to say, depends as much on our sharing of these inexplicable moments of disaster as it does on our enduring ideals of liberty and freedom and justice for all.


The author of thirteen novels, five plays, and numerous short stories, Don DeLillo was born in the Bronx in 1936. He received his bachelor's degree from Fordham University and worked as a copywriter at the Ogilvie and Mather advertising agency in New York City from 1959 until 1964, during which time he published his first short stories. Americana (1971), his first novel, announced the arrival of a major literary talent, and the novels that followed confirmed his reputation as one of the most distinctive and compelling voices in late-twentieth-century American fiction. The subject matter of DeLillo's work runs a rich gamut, demonstrating eclectic and sometimes cerebral interests: nuclear game theory, "Hitler studies" as a scholarly enterprise, academic marriages, rock-and-roll stars, hockey and sportswriting, physics, film's impact on our apprehension of history, JFK, and the inner lives of terrorists. DeLillo's comic gifts are also considerable, though not always recognized. They come to the fore in White Noise (1985), which won the National Book Award, and Underworld (1997), with its vivid portraits of actor Jackie Gleason and standup comedian Lenny Bruce.

DeLillo's other literary awards include the PEN/Faulkner Award, for Mao II (1991), and the Jerusalem Prize, awarded to writers "whose work explores the freedom of the individual in society."


  • What motivates Oswald to try to shoot the president?
  • How successful is Nicholas Branch's effort to write the "secret history" of JFK's assassination (p. 15), and why must it be "secret"?
  • What role do Win Everett's wife, Mary Frances, and daughter, Suzanne, play in his life?
  • Why does DeLillo spend so much time detailing the experience of the Bay of Pigs?
  • Are we meant to feel sympathetic or judgmental toward Marguerite when she talks about Oswald?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between Oswald and Leon?
  • Thinking about the plans to kill the president, Wayne Elko "was amazed that an idea like this could even exist in America" (p. 380). Are we meant to be amazed also?
  • Why does Bobby Dupard tell Oswald, "I say, Go brother. Say, Do it to them. Because what edge do we have asides hating?" (p. 272)?
  • Why is Marina attracted to Oswald?

  • Nicholas Branch reflects that "After Oswald, men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities, suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers" (p. 181). Is this vision of America accurate?
  • Has American society grown more or less violent since the assassination of JFK?
  • Does fictional treatment of historical events illuminate them in a useful way?


Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1966)
This account of the infamous Clutter family murder in a small Kansas town and the ensuing trial, conviction, and execution of the perpetrators is still the true-crime story against which all others must be measured.

Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy (1925)
A young man with limited means but ceaseless ambition is seduced by the American dream, represented by an intoxicatingly beautiful woman and a chance at instant wealth.

Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997)
Seymour Lev is a virtuous citizen, happily married and living on his comfortable New Jersey estate when his daughter joins the Weathermen Underground movement, making him ask what he did wrong as a parent.

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992)
A spirited fictional exploration of how America might be transformed by global capitalism and terror in the twenty-first century, this futuristic work is witty, intelligent, and thought provoking.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 17 of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2007

    pure passion, human blood-rush, and isolation?

    ¿Libra¿, to say this book is about the assassination of JFK is to miss the point of the book. By using basically the same exact cast of characters as James Ellroy does in his The Cold Six Thousand, DeLillo comes to a likewise and evenly frightening conclusion. Unlike many novels relating to JFK assassination DeLillo's attempt details events from two unlike perspectives. The first which explores Lee Harvey Oswald's life is well accounted by the authors fulgurous creativity. The other more schematic plot construes the infamous conspiracy to assassinate the President. By the end the quality of the author¿s delivery and characterization, we are left with empathizing Lee Harvey Oswald, Who is known to the mass public as one of the most notorious men of the twentieth century. Libra is a fictional novel about the history of the assassination of President John Kennedy and an insightful narrative about the man who is said to have pulled the trigger: Lee Harvey Oswald. This dead obligating novel was found to be confusing by some people, but I really enjoyed reading it. What fascinated me for the most was how DeLillo takes this historical event, tear it up, and remodels it, playing with all different types of stereotypes that were made, and fighting the challenging hypothesis. He follows Oswald life from a young boy, to manhood, and to an assassin (is he?). Don DeLillo delivers many sides of Oswald giving readers a chance to come to their own conclusion. The meaning of the title itself if given a second look, deliver multi-levels of meaning to what DeLillo is actually conveying. The assassination scene finally hails after 400 pages of reading and is worth the waiting. Very well written, I found the events to flash in slow motion. It¿s gripping and intense, the examining descriptions of his time spent in USSR, his wife and his mother. Libra contains Delillo's most accomplished characterizations, especially of women - Oswald's mother and his Russian wife. The dismaying and scary Mrs. Oswald is a proof of her son's insanity. Mrs. Oswald was demented, and so was lee. His cold and brilliant novel begins with thirteen-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald sharing oppressively close quarters with his mother. Lee was the third of three children in the family the youngest of all, the oldest boy Robert Oswald, was Marguerite's son from her previous marriage. As a single mother, Marguerite was often unable to provide for her three sons. They spent several years in and out of orphanages. Lee¿s childhood was marked by constant turmoil, as they had to move from one place to another. It was rare for him to attend more than one semester at any given school. His grades were poor and as he grew older, his attendance became less even. He was characterized as a lonely child. And his mother generally refused to comply with recommendations about counseling and other treatments for her son. 'If she had faced it, if she had seen to it that Lee received the help he needed,' Robert Oswald would state, 'I don't think the world would ever have heard of Lee Harvey Oswald.' (2) His mother is said to have shown excessive affection on him. She has also been characterized as domineering and emotionally volatile similar to Mrs. Iselin in ¿The Manchurian Candidate¿.Oswald, in his later years enlisting himself in the Marines may have also been a way to escape from his overbearing mother. (3)Oswald's mother weighing with self-defining monologues in the book, are a pleasure to read, but a pain to sympathize with. It¿s clear that his mother raised him in a disturbed and wildly disordered environment. But is he truly guilty for his actions and his contemptibly narrow outlooks, or is his mother? A disturbed old lady, who is to be blamed for his ultimate misdeed, DeLillo strongly acknowledges all the random events and smartly incorporates them into his plot. The writer attempts to show that Oswald was, in fact, a victim of his ab

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2000


    If you are going to read DeLillo, read this book. Especially if you tried to read White Noise and failed, read this book. Easily in my 'ten favorite novels' list.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2013


    She sits in her house, bored out of her mind. She wanted to dtay with Serena but she wnted to let her little sister have so alone time with her boyfriend.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2008

    A reviewer

    From the opening paragraph, DeLillo weaves a haunting tale of Lee Harvey Oswald and the managerie of characters (mob bosses, Cuban exiles, private eyes, CIA ops) who may have killed a president. As it is sketched, the shooting of JFK is a Cuban conspiracy that leads naturally to death but no matter what you think of the plot, DeLillo's stunning descriptions are unforgettable. Read the CIA archivist passages and the shooting itself. If you enjoy a master of language setting off poetic fireworks, you will love to read and reread Libra.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2005

    Interesting but not engaging

    Don DeLillo's 'Libra' is both unique yet dull, ambitious yet unfocused, interesting yet unengaging, and ultimately a mixed bag. This is the first Don DeLillo novel I've read and it does not leave me wanting to rush to the bookstore and get another one of his novels. 'Libra' takes us behind the scenes of one of the most important historical events of the 20th Century: the Kennedy assassination. He takes us into the mind of Lee Harvey Oswald and explores his motivations and complex personality. He takes us into the CIA and unravels many conspiracy theories before our eyes. DeLillo's intention, however, is not to screw around with history, but to take it seriously and to show how inaccessible the past, as an object, can be. This is where DeLillo succeeds as an author. His thoughts and perceptions on history are prevalent throughout the novel and are some of the novel's biggest themes. What's frustrating about DeLillo, however, is his writing style. At times he's too random and unfocused as he goes from character to character and different plot developments. Much of the dialogue is jerky and bizarre and the story is at times all over the place to the point where you throw up your hands in frustration. The novel contains close to 30 major characters who all float in and out of the main focus of the story. DeLillo is certainly a great talent, however, and should not be dismissed. His writing style, however, may not be for everyone's tastes. Recommended, but not too highly.

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