Thursday, April 03, 2014

Coincidences, Patterns, and Poker in Delillo’s Libra

On my most recent round of tourney trippin’ I carried along a copy of Don Delillo’s 1988 novel Libra, the one in which he imagines a fictional version of the JFK assassination.

Delillo works from the assumption that the CIA-led plot that many have explored (and which many subscribe to) was indeed in place and from that point of view fleshes out many of the characters involved, including, of course, the “patsy” Lee Harvey Oswald. He adds some twists, however, to the idea, thereby creating what could be considered a unique, speculative investigation into what happened in Dallas.

I first read Libra not long after it came out in 1988, the 25th anniversary of the assassination. I don’t think I reread it since, so about 25 more years have passed between my readings.

I enjoyed it then as I did this time, perhaps finding the book all the more compelling now that I’m more knowledgeable about the contextual history and even many of the real-life equivalents of the characters who come up in the story. It’s much more engaging (to me) than, say, Oliver Stone’s JFK which I never liked very much -- not because of the film’s controversial entertaining of conspiracies (and spotlighting of Jim Garrison), but because (to me) it’s just a boring, talky movie.

Anyhow, this time through I came across one minor poker reference in Libra I thought I’d share.

Amid some backstory involving a couple of the conspirators, including the notorious David Ferrie, one shares a story about having a dream about someone -- Jack Ruby -- and then weirdly running into him the next day. Ferrie responds with a quickly-delivered thesis about “coincidence.”

“We don’t know what to call it, so we say coincidence,” he begins, but adds “It goes deeper.”

“You’re a gambler. You get a feeling about a horse, a poker hand. There’s a hidden principle. Every process contains its own outcome. Sometimes we tap in. We see it, we know.”

It’s a digression from the subject of their meeting, but it sounds an obvious theme of the entire book, namely, that human existence is so complicated that patterns, coincidences, and other things we don’t know what to call but which seem to hint at some sort of hidden meaning or coherence to our scrambled lives are bound to occur. And a dramatic event like the assassination -- “the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century” (as it is referred to a few pages later) -- helps bring that truth to the surface.

Libra addresses other existential questions in satisfying ways as well, giving the reader a lot to take away from it. A lot to count on, you might say, which is ironic as the story it tells is all about uncertainty.

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