Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Oswald an antihero without a cause

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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 now-Washington-based Savodnik is well-travelled 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 naØve 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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 A1

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