Most investigators of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy have worked to tie Lee Harvey Oswald to physical evidence or to suspicious relationships. In “The Interloper,” Peter Savodnik does something simpler: He explains Oswald’s motive. After all this time, hasn’t that been the most vexatious question?

Doubts about the evidence or the lurid motives of various mobsters, spooks and right-wingers loitering on the periphery of this crime have never been sufficient to make us question the official explanations; it is our disbelief that the charismatic Kennedy was killed in the prime of his life on the whim of a lone nobody. Nature abhors a vacuum, and nothing was ever emptier than Oswald’s short, aimless, rootless life.

But when Savodnik uncorks Oswald, he finds not an empty vessel but a man filled with an abundance of alienating experiences and desires. Savodnik calls Oswald an interloper, someone who flees “from his old life and [inserts] himself into a new one adorned with new people and a new landscape and a new language or accent — with the hope that this time he might find a permanent home.’’

Oswald, whose father died before he was born, had moved 20 times by his 17th birthday, not counting when he was temporarily parked with relatives or his three-week stint at a home for troubled youths. The longest he lived anywhere was four years in Fort Worth; he spent a year in the Bethlehem Children’s Home in New Orleans. He had to have been very lonely, a nearly invisible boy.

Just after he turned 17, Oswald for the first time became the author, instead of just the baggage, in an act of interloping: He joined the Marine Corps, mostly to escape his domineering mother. Very soon the slight Oswald concluded that he didn’t fit in. He developed an interest in communism and the Soviet Union, read Pravda in his bunk and talked about communism with his squad mates. None of them took him seriously. Said one to the Warren Commission: “He said this to shock. He was playing to the galleries.’’

“The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union” by Peter Savodnik (Basic Books). (Basic Books)

But Oswaldskovich, as they called him, was serious; communism’s criticisms of American society felt true to this outsider, and he began laying plans to defect to the U.S.S.R. In October 1959, a month after obtaining a hardship discharge, he took a train out of Helsinki, bound for the Soviet Union.

At this point in the story, Savodnik’s book really comes into its own. Savodnik has used Oswald’s letters and writings, U.S. and Soviet records, and interviews with people who knew Oswald to construct an in-depth account of the 21 / 2 years he spent in Russia. But he doesn’t just show us whom Oswald knew and where he lived; he also shows us the psychological impact of the relationships Oswald developed and the status he enjoyed.

We see a young man who for the first time did something that made people take notice. He had rather courageously left his family and his homeland and gone to live in a much-despised nation that he, alone among his cohort, recognized as a better place. When he arrived, he was accepted as a significant person into a community; he had a job and friends. Unbeknownst to him, much of this had been arranged by the KGB, but no matter: He was noticed, he was relatively happy.

But over the next two years, the curse of the interloper asserted itself. He came to recognize the lack of freedom in the U.S.S.R.; he lost faith in the regime. “No choice, however small,’’ he wrote, “is left to the discretion of the individual.’’ He was crushed by this disappointment. He had received so much from the Soviet Union — identity, status, a way to become the hero of his own life. He had risked much by moving there, but when he saw the truth, he lost more than a job or an apartment; he lost his long-sought vindication. And then he had to return to America, where he had been a loser.

Among Oswald’s friends in Minsk was a young woman named Ella German, with whom he fell in love. Although they dated for a couple of months, he was more deeply drawn to her than she to him. On New Year’s Eve 1960, he spent the evening at her home, where there was a big family party. It was a snowy, sparkling night, full of warmth, laughter, dancing and boozy affection; it might have been the best night of his life. The next day he proposed to German, who refused him. The rebuff not only left him disappointed but advanced his growing disenchantment with Soviet life. Later he married the beautiful Marina Prusakova, who soon bore the first of their two children. That relationship, however, was warped by the frustrating collapse of his Soviet adventure and his inglorious return to America.

The last year and a half of Oswald’s life shows a man unraveling: broke, unable to keep a job, moving frequently, beating his wife. In early 1963, he bought a rifle and fired a shot into the Dallas home of Maj. Gen. Edwin A. Walker, an outspoken right-winger; he told Marina that killing Walker would be like killing Hitler. Whoever did that would be a hero.

Savodnik concludes that Oswald’s murder of the president was impersonal; Kennedy was just the man who walked in when the band played “Hail to the Chief” and who one day was driven past Oswald’s window. Then again, it was personal toward the people of Minsk, particularly Ella German, whom Savodnik calls “the woman who had come closest to being his true love.” Oswald wanted to show that he was a true revolutionary hero and a greater communist than any of them, to show her that she had made a mistake.

Oswald’s reasons may have been born in pain and twisted beyond rationality, but, as Savodnik shows in this perceptive book, they made sense to him.

Jamie Malanowski, the author of “The Book of Levon: The Trials and Triumphs of Levon Helm,” is working on a biography of the Civil War naval hero William Cushing.


Lee Harvey Oswald Inside
the Soviet Union

By Peter Savodnik

Basic. 267 pp. $27