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Monday, 24 November 2008

A Veritable Onion

We’ve been sent a review copy of The Grassy Knoll Badgeman by Alan J. Summers (AuthorHouse, £10.99, ISBN 978-1-4343-8673-1). The book is listed as a novel but is an apparently factual account, written in a detached academic style, of sundry shenanigans perpetrated by one Robert Elmer Kleasen—a real person, in whom we have an abiding interest.
Kleasen, who died a few years ago in prison in England, had an undistinguished career in the United States in various jails (both as inmate and guard), as a taxidermist, an amateur gunsmith and fanatically dedicated hunter, a mental-health patient and, finally, as convicted murderer. Sent to death row in Texas in 1975 for the murder of two Mormon missionaries, he was released on appeal over a legal technicality, then jailed again for firearms offences, then finally pitched up in England in 1990. Where, of course, no one knew him. To the extent that Humberside police considered him upright enough to grant him a firearms dealer’s licence. He abused that dispensation and found himself back in jail, where he eventually died awaiting extradition to the USA.
In England Kleasen re-invented himself several times over. He told people he’d been born in Germany, where he’d been a star member of the Hitler Youth; he’d come to the USA with his father, a rocket scientist, who was imported under Operation Paperclip. He somehow acquired a Medal of Honor, which he occasionally wore, claiming to have been awarded it for flying bombing missions for the US Air Force at the Battle of Inchon in Korea. As a matter of history, air support for the Inchon landing came solely from carrier-based US Marine Corps planes; and unsurprisingly the official list of MoH recipients doesn’t include his name. Kleasen had then—among many other things—flown U2 spy planes for the CIA, been a member of a Swedish delegation to North Viet Nam, and been a professor of German at the American University in Beirut (in the 1980s when he was actually in jail); he later fought for the PLO. Some stories would change over the years and careful listeners noted that sometimes he seemed to have been in two places at once.
Those who both knew Kleasen well and knew the truth concluded that he wasn’t, precisely, lying about all this. Of course it was all howling claptrap and baloney, but it seems Kleasen had come to believe his own fantasies: his false memories had superseded (perhaps eliminated) his real ones. But he did talk a lot about Che Guevara, and in such a way that it seemed likely that he had known the man—quite possibly meeting him in Mexico in the 1950s.
Now along comes Alan J. Summers—apparently an American—to fill in some of the gaps in Kleasen’s life story, real and unreal. According to Summers, Kleasen has three more amazing claims to fame: in Cuba after the revolution he operated as Herman Marks, otherwise known only as a shadowy US citizen who worked as an enthusiastic executioner for Castro and Guevara; he was the mysterious ‘badgeman’ photographed shooting at John F. Kennedy on the grassy knoll on 22 November 1963; and he was the CIA operative who gave the coup de grâce to Guevara when he was captured in Bolivia in October 1967.
It’s possible to fit the stories Summers tells into Kleasen’s non-fictional biography, but they smack delightfully of the kind of tall tale the man himself was so adept at spinning. But this is one of the pleasures of the book. We can leave others to debunk these episodes in detail. Meanwhile, Summers seems to have concocted a bunch of plausible yarns about a man who turned his whole life into an epic yarn. The sedate style is a fine pastiche of factual biographical writing. It clothes the narrative with a kind of sober respectability—and a deep ambiguity that perfectly suits the many-layered life of Kleasen himself. There is something strangely satisfying in the thought of creating believable whoppers about a man who believed his own falsehoods. Quite post-modern, really, except that it’s highly readable. Recommended!

2 Comments:

Anonymous Tim Fleming said...

I wonder if this Summers is related to one Anthony Summers, a British author, as I recall, who has written extensively on the JFK assassination?

Though I am familiar with Operation Paperclip, especially the rocket scientists, I have never heard of Kleasen (sp.?)

25 November 2008 20:01  
Blogger Peter B said...

No relation to the JFK author as far as I know.

Kleasen actually had no connection to Paperclip. Nor did his Dad. This was part of the alternative reality he created for himself.

30 November 2008 04:45  

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