New JFK book a conspiracy of confusion

Review JFK Assassination

December 04, 2005|By STEVE WEINBERG | STEVE WEINBERG,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A Farewell To Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK's Assassination, and the Case That Should Have Changed History

Joan Mellen

Potomac Books / 547 pages

The debate over who assassinated President John F. Kennedy 42 years ago will not end. As hundreds of books on the topic pile up, the authors tend to find common ground on only one major point: The official U.S. government version of Lee Harvey Oswald as a lone assassin working for himself is bunk.

Entering the debate is author Joan Mellen, who is simultaneously an unlikely and likely participant. Unlikely because she earns her salary as an English professor inside Temple University classrooms. Likely because she is a polymath seemingly able to write about anything. Look at the range of her 17 books: actress Marilyn Monroe, expatriate author Kay Boyle, film criticism, sports, true crime, Latin America, fiction. Her range and intellect can leave a mere mortal breathless.

This book began as a straightforward biography of Jim Garrison, the controversial district attorney in New Orleans who lived an unconventional life between his birth in 1921 and his death in 1992. At some level, however, Mellen must have known that a biography of Garrison would end up as a JFK assassination inquiry. After all, Garrison's unsuccessful prosecution of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw as a party to the murder is well-known to assassination theory followers. Garrison believed, as does Mellen, that lots of people helped plan the Kennedy assassination, and that many of them lived in or otherwise frequented Louisiana.

In reviewing a book like this, it is difficult to decide whether to reveal the punch line or to merely hint at it, thus allowing readers self-discovery. I have decided upon revelation, for reasons disclosed later in this review.

Mellen asserts that Shaw, Garrison's leading assassination suspect, worked with the CIA. Garrison believed employees of that U.S. government entity planned the assassination, then coordinated the cover-up with FBI agents. Oswald became the pawn of the federal agents, enlisted by them specifically to play the role of scapegoat.

Garrison came to his conclusion slowly, beginning in earnest two years after the assassination. From then until his death, Garrison cared first and foremost about bringing Kennedy's killers to justice.

Mellen met Garrison for the first time during 1969, after her husband had corresponded with the district attorney about Shaw's activities. She found him fascinating. Then she got sucked into his investigation. "What began as the chronicle of a man I once knew, a sardonic ironist, who would talk for hours about the assassination, became a biography of his investigation," Mellen says. She interviewed more than 1,000 sources, demonstrating, she comments, "the specifics of how the FBI and CIA - led by National Security Agency, FBI and CIA veteran Walter Sheridan - attempted to destroy Garrison's effort, not least by bribing his witnesses."

Near the beginning of her book, Mellen tries to assist readers by providing a "cast of characters." It includes 178 men and women. She mentions many, many more in addition to those listed.

Therein lies part of the problem with Mellen's book. She introduces so many characters in the service of so many subplots feeding into the Big Assassination Theory that the storyline becomes incomprehensible. Characters make a brief appearance, then disappear forever from the pages, or else reappear later, maybe under a different variation of their name. The reason I revealed the central thesis earlier in this review is that as Mellen tries to develop it, I became lost. I read several chapters multiple times, but understanding eluded me. Mellen is normally an excellent stylist, but in the face of the Kennedy assassination her wordsmithing implodes until backward the mind reels.

The organization of the book is a puzzle to me as well. I work mightily as a book author and magazine feature writer to provide readers with a compelling narrative. Sometimes that means presenting information chronologically, sometimes thematically, sometimes through flashbacks and flash-forwards. Whatever organizational technique I use, I expect it to be transparent to my readers. Mellen baffled me again and again with her violations of chronology. In some sections, it seems as if she wrote say, 20 paragraphs, cut them apart, threw them in the air, then arranged them in whatever order she retrieved them from the carpet.

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