Underworld by Don DeLillo

Scribner 1997 827 pp. $27.50

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Murderers, of presidents and strangers. An artist who paints B-52s that once rained Armageddon on the earth. A metaphysician of garbage. A home run that knitted together, if only for a moment, a disintegrating country. These reflections of the last five decades shine through Don DeLillo’s massive new novel, Underworld, a work that seeks to transform the signs and wonders of modern American history into an aesthetically comprehensible whole.

The narrative digressions that form the nominal plot of this immense novel defy easy summary. Jumping back and forth among the decades, we follow the fortunes of Nick Shay, a former corporate speechwriter, now fifty-seven and living in Phoenix, working for a firm "involved in waste. We were waste handlers, waste traders, cosmologists of waste." At seventeen Nick committed the sort of monstrous crime that turned William Burroughs into a writer. It turned Nick Shay into the quintessential DeLillo protagonist, a man who dwells "in a state of quiet separation from all the things [one] might cite as the solid stuff of home and work and responsible reality." Shay speaks with resigned cadences that are scary in their frigid impersonality of tone, and establishing a rarefied, curiously unironic distance between himself and the world.

As the story unfolds, we learn why Nick is visiting the aging artist Clara Sax, ensconced in the desert, where she and her assistants are painting abandoned military aircraft, "two hundred and thirty planes, swept-winged, finned like bottom creatures." Nick hopes their meeting will solve the mystery of his childhood abandonment by his father.

As much as this novel is Nick Shay’s story, it is also the story of a baseball and a bomb. The baseball, "the shot heard round the world," was the Bobby Thompson homer that gave the Giants the pennant over the Dodgers, sending them into the World Series. On that same day, October 3rd, 1951, the Soviet Union exploded an atomic device, "a red bomb that spouts a great white cloud like some thunder god of ancient Eurasia." We follow the ball from Thompson’s bat into the hands of a Harlem teenager, and the crazed attempts of a cadre of collectors in later decades seeking to authenticate that the baseball in their possession is Thompson’s homer. We follow the bomb from its initial explosion to its eventual historical irony: it is finally used by Shay’s firm to destroy spent plutonium waste.

For DeLillo, an attempt to understand our history can only be done obliquely, from below ground. Subways, nuclear containment facilities, Sergei Eisenstein’s lost film Unterwelt, Underworld, the 1927 gangster film, adultery, and, ultimately, garbage: all the buried and the hidden are for DeLillo the entryway into understanding the second half of the twentieth century. An Italian word describes it: "Dietrologia. It means the science of what is behind something. A suspicious event. The science of what is behind an event."

In Underworld, as in his previous novels, DeLillo shows that he is a more writer of sentences than a constructor of engaging plots. Glorious sentences fill this novel, gorgeous strings of words you want to memorize, to repeat when you’re scared or bored. DeLillo understands the capacity of words to elevate us above the mundane, to establish a distance from things and a mastery over them, a power emerging from the capacity given to Adam, the ability to name. He possesses both the metaphysical insight and the verbal skill to render the lack of a powerful narrative push irrelevant.

In fact, like Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, this is a paranoid novel, in which, over the space of 800 pages, the seemingly disconnected is shown to be unified. Taken together, these events demonstrate the hidden links, the "curious neuron web of lonely-chrome America."

Underworld is the work of a master, a book for everyone who thinks "you’re missing something and you don’t know what it is. You’re lonely inside your life. You have a job and a family and a fully executed will, already, at your age, because the whole point is to die prepared, die legal, with all the papers signed. Die liquid, so they can convert to cash. You used to have the same dimensions as the observable universe. Now you’re a lost speck. You look at old cars and recall a purpose, a destination." DeLillo seeks to uncover that purpose in the crucible of his novel.