As we approach the end of what has been called the American Century, the big U.S. writers are responding with big books, sensing perhaps that the next century will be named for someone else. Norman Mailer was first with Harlot’s Ghost (1991), and to ensure that his would remain the biggest, Mailer ended his 1,282-page novel with the words “To be continued.” Gay Tálese followed with Unto the Sons (1992), while more recently Richard Ford published Independence Day (1995) and John Updike weighed in with In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996). They are all epic, literary explorations of our troubled, entertaining neighbor. Now, Don DeLillo’s Underworld (Distican, 827 pages) joins these books as a sprawling catalogue of the past half century.
In a few years, lists will inevitably be made of the century’s greatest painters, writers, musicians, etc., and DeLillo will likely figure prominently. It is partly because his work is so suited to the uncertainties of the times. DeLillo, 61, who lives with his wife, Barbara Bennett, a landscape designer, in Connecticut, has quietlyjoined the ranks of America’s literary elite. His list of awards is extensive, including the PEN/Faulkner Award (for his 1988 novel Libra) and the National Book Award (for 1985’s White Noise), though he has avoided the public eye and his books tend not to be best-sellers. Few writers have been as effective at conveying the mood of ennui and menace that underlines the modern era. In Libra, his novel about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination, DeLillo wrote that history is “the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” Underworld renews the exploration of all the things “they” aren’t telling us, but on a larger canvas. Though it began modestly.
“ Underworld wasn’t meant to be millennial, or apocalyptic,” says DeLillo. He is sitting in the celebrity suite at a Toronto hotel during a recent publicity tour, trim and athletic-looking, less forbidding than his photographs, which, like his books, convey a vague sense of menace. “I was writing a long story about a baseball game,” he says, “but it refused to end.” Once he decided that it was a novel, he knew it would be a long book. “I had written a 25,000-word prologue and had yet to introduce a main character. So I was in trouble, so to speak. The book created itself.” Underworld looks at America through two of its central mythologies, baseball and the Cold War. It opens with an extended description of the final game of the 1951 pennant race between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. In DeLillo’s imaginative recreation, Frank Sinatra, Toots Shor, J. Edgar Hoover and Jackie Gleason are all in the stands, sitting together. During the game, Gleason stuffs himself with hot dogs and booze and vomits on Frank Sinatra’s thin-soled Italian loafers. Hoover, meanwhile, receives news from a minion that the Russians have successfully tested an atomic bomb. The Cold War has begun. (In reality, the Russian test did take place on the same day as the Dodgers-Giants game.)
The Giants win the game when Bobby Thomson hits a three-run homer off Ralph Branca in the ninth inning. Fans clamber for the historic ball and it is recovered by the fictional Cotter Martin, a young black kid. Underworld’s complex structure is created by following the baseball through its various owners, particularly Nick Shay, who is in waste disposal. The baseball gains value despite the fact that its authenticity can’t be verified. Like much of America’s mythology, it exists between the worlds of fiction and nonfiction.
“When I started Underworld,” DeLillo says, “I tried to think of what the relationship might be between that ball game and the fact that the Soviets had exploded an atom bomb on the same day. In a way, that’s why I started the book, to understand what the juxtaposition might be. It occurred to me that the ball game was a unifying and largely joyous event, the kind of event where people came out of their houses. But with the onset of the bomb, the communal spirit becomes associated with danger and loss rather than celebration.” DeLillo himself is a slightly lapsed sports fan. “I find it difficult to watch a sporting event without reading a book or a newspaper,” he says. “The ’96 playoffs and World Series did get me to a more intense level. I’m still a Yankee fan, and they were in the Series and they played some taut ball games. When I read the newspapers, I read the sports pages first.” He is a football fan, too, rooting for the New York Giants, a team that was an overachieving surprise last season. “They seemed to be a lyrical illusion, as Malraux said of the student protesters in 1968.”
But neither sports nor politics has the same hold on the national psyche that they once did, DeLilobserves. When JFK died, the country mourned as one. The Watergate hearings had the quality of soap opera, and people were mesmerized by the betrayals and intrigue. But Clinton’s ongoing troubles haven’t captured the public’s imagination. “People just don’t believe that the Clinton issues are sufficiently compelling,” DeLillo says. “It’s as if he’s a sort of theme-park version of Jack Kennedy.” He has become, DeLillo notes, a sort of fictional character.
“I think we’ve begun to think of ourselves as fictional characters,” DeLillo says, “that our lives are slowly turning to fiction in a curious way.” The blurring of this line is something DeLillo attributes, in part, to television. The country sees itself through the draining and repetitive imagery of the news. The language of sitcom stars leaches into the language.
The blurring of fiction and reality is a familiar theme in DeLillo’s work. History and fiction coexisted happily, even plausibly, in Libra. The same ambiguity pervades Underworld, where there is a description of 1950s bomb tests in which 100 pigs were dressed in GI field jackets and placed at intervals away from the detonation site. “Is this when history turned to fiction?” a character asks.
Underworld is DeLillo’s most ambitious exploration of America’s national dichotomy. On the surface, the country is friendlier than an old dog, filled with people who use your name in every sentence, who are open for business. Beneath the Dale Carnegie veneer, there lurks JFK’s unsolved assassination, every CIA plot, Watergate, Irangate, Paulagate—all the various Gates. America floats on a hazy pool of unwritten history. “All the banned words, the secrets kept in whitewashed vaults, the half-forgotten plots— they’re all out there now,” DeLillo writes in Underworld, “seeping invisibly into the land and air, into the marrowed folds of the bone.” DeLillo has said that his work is about danger, specifically about modern danger, but the nature of modern danger has shifted with the end of the Cold War. “In the U.S.,” DeLillo says, “there is a sense of randomness and ambiguity. What the Cold War years gave us was something against which to measure, even if that something was the horrific level of danger we were living under.” With the Cold War over, without a clear and marketable enemy, America is slightly adrift. “It’s almost possible to imagine a curious sense of nostalgia for the Cold War, of people missing the clearly defined sense of confrontation, the sense of measurable certainties.”
DeLillo doesn’t provide much in the way of measurable certainties. There is an obliqueness to his work. His characters are aloof, and Underworld unfolds like a jazz solo. But his words thrill. His novels are driven by language, rather than characters or plot. ‘What I really want to do is create clear, compelling and maybe beautiful sentences,” DeLillo says. “That is what drives me as a writer.” While the innovative rhythms of his sentences have been widely praised, his politics and his view of history have been attacked by the American Right. He has been accused of writing political tracts and of being a bad citizen. “I think a writer ought to be a bad citizen,” DeLillo says, smiling. “The writer only has a responsibility to his own imagination. Fiction is always going to explore small, hidden, anonymous corners. And it should. But there is also the press of public events, and to writers, this becomes a kind of irresistible lure. The power of history.”
DeLillo’s books convey a sense of America’s secret history. The “airborne toxic event” in White Noise and the hostage taking of Mao II (1991) had the quality of news stories that had yet to be reported. At the end of Underworld, Nick Shay is in Russia, where they are going to detonate nuclear bombs underground as a method of waste disposal. It sounds plausible. It may have already happened, though it’s unlikely we’ll find out about it. □
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