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The Prankster And The Conspiracy

I recently finished reading Adam Gorightly's The Prankster And The Conspiracy , a biography of Kerry Thornley. The name Kerry Thornley probably does not ring a bell, which is a shame. He is the most fascinating American historical figure you have never heard of.  He was friends at different times with both Lee Harvey Oswald and sci-fi author Robert Anton Wilson (as well as having a very very brief dalliance with actress Grace Zabriskie.) His friendship with Oswald (during his time in the Marines) led to his being investigated by Jim Garrison, as well as being a witness before the Warren Commission.

In addition to these relationships, Thornley made his own mark by helping found Discordianism in a bowling alley in the late 50's. I was going to say "the religion of Discordianism", but I'm not sure that's right. As the book points out, some say that it is an elaborate joke disguised as a religion, whereas others say it is a religion disguised as an elaborate joke.

The conspiracy in the title refers to the alleged conspiracy to assassinate JFK. As mentioned before, Thornley knew Lee Harvey Oswald in the marines and wrote a novel with a main character patterned after him, long before the assassination. He also wrote a biography of Oswald after the assassination. This brought him to the attention of both the Warren Commission and New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison (later made famous in the Oliver Stone film  JFK.)

Author Gorightly leans towards a belief that the assassination was a conspiracy, but he does not flatter Jim Garrison at all. It's refreshing to read a work by someone unquestionably on the left who is also willing to smash leftist idols. The reader is first introduced to Garrison  in a chapter entitled "Tales Of The Jolly Green Giant", those last words being a popular nickname for Garrison. The first thing we learn about Garrison is a very flimsy perjury case he had planned to bring against a man named John Heindel, who was also in the marines with Oswald. When the case fell apart, he turned his sights on Thornley, claiming he had lied about being seen with Oswald in New Orleans.
Later Garrison would try to make a case that Thornley  had worked as a double for Oswald in the conspiracy. Garrison's prosecutorial mania turned Thornley, a man who made Abby Hoffman look like an accountant for Haliburton, into a villain for many on the  left. Assassination researcher David Lifton has written a scathing account of Garrison's treatment of Thornley, which can be read here.

Thornley became increasingly delusional, eventually believing that he actually had been an Oswald double, in spite of the lack of evidence. He became more and more paranoid about his friends, including Robert Anton Wilson, whom he believed was a CIA operative. (In fairness, Gorightly points out that many people shared this delusion.)  Gorightly suggests many possible reasons for Thornley's mental breakdown, including his LSD use, and possible genetic causes. I think Garrison's incessant badgering could have brought about his particular delusions of being an Oswald double.

"The Prankster And The Conspiracy" is not quite as depressing as I'm making it sound. As the other half of the title suggests, Thornley loved a good prank. When he was in the marines, he and some buddies invented a fictional soldier named Omar Khayamm Ravenurst (a name that he would later take as his discordian pseudonym). He once passed out fliers urging people to boycott a gun amnesty at the 1994 Superbowl, and not bring their illegal guns in exchange for tickets. There was no gun amnesty.

Thornley reminds me a little of the characters in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, who invented elaborate conspiracies, only to find the line between real and fabricated conspiracies was a little fuzzier than they thought. But there are differences between Foucault's Pendulum and Thornley's biography. The former is fictional, and a lot more tedious than the latter. I'll take Gorightly's work over Eco's anytime...it's a hell of a lot more entertaining, and makes it's points about reality and conspiracies much more elegantly.

Even though this is a relatively long review for a fairly short (<300 pages) book, there are a lot of things in the book I haven't even touched on, such as Thornley's politics (he went from marxist to objectivist to anarchist), and some speculation about what the real story behind the Kennedy assassination might be (including some pretty damning info about E. Howard Hunt.) You'll have to read the book for all the juicy details. It's worth finding and purchasing..