An Underhistory of Mid-Century America

A Dantean Novel, to be talked about for years to come

"I DON'T Want to Talk About It" read the engraved card that Don DeLillo handed me in Athens in 1979, after I'd crossed seven time zones to interview him. "It" was his youth, growing up with Italian immigrant parents in the Bronx. Even about his books DeLillo was secretive. "When you try to unravel something you've written, you belittle it in a way," he said in the interview. "It was created as a mystery, in part." Though still suspicious of talk, DeLillo has stood up to accept awards for his past three novels: the American Book Award for (1985), the Irish Times-Aer Lingus Prize for (1988), and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II (1991). Now sixty, DeLillo may again have to appear before a crowd, to say a few words about Underworld -- for this huge novel, which reveals the secrets of Nick Shay, a middle-aged Italian-American from the Bronx, is an underhistory of the cultural repressions of mid-century America.

In 1982 DeLillo told another interviewer that Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis were the contemporary American novelists who "set the standard." The author of ten previous novels, DeLillo has now produced a masterwork to rank with and Like them, Underworld is an encyclopedia of native delusions and a handbook of authorial ingenuities. Revisiting the American bedrock of his younger, underclass life, DeLillo has also returned to his early artistic influences to give Underworld an experimental, breakout vigor. Films by Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini, progressive jazz, and Abstract Expressionism -- rather than literature -- were the young DeLillo's guides out of the Bronx, his Jesuit education, and a corporate job. In its auteurist control, dissonant solos, and spatial form, Underworld resets the standard for those fiction-writing prodigies -- David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Jonathan Franzen -- who count DeLillo as a father figure.

An underhistory

Lest these claims and comparisons frighten off newcomers to DeLillo's world, Underworld offers ease of access, like hell, and a leisurely tour unified by a dark-woods wanderer, like Dante's Inferno. The novel begins with a fifty-page prologue titled "The Triumph of Death," which retells one of baseball's greatest games -- the Giants-Dodgers playoff on October 3, 1951, the day Bobby Thomson hit his "shot heard 'round the world" and the Soviet Union exploded its second nuclear bomb. For Nick Shay, a dejected Dodgers fan, Thomson's home run ended innocence and marked a violent future. For America, DeLillo suggests, the Cold War elicited fake innocence, the repression of dread, and the expression of substitute emotions.

In Part I the novel shifts to 1992 and Phoenix, where Nick, a globe-trotting executive at Waste Containment, lives. Now in his late fifties, Nick has paid $34,500 for Thomson's home-run ball and uses it as a charm against late-night panic attacks. Traveling in the western desert where his brother, Matty, once worked as a weapons designer, Nick visits a former lover from the Bronx, the painter Klara Sax, who is transforming junked B-52s into a gigantic art installation. She prompts him to meditate on his present and to face shades from his past.

Nick considers his youth to be hazardous waste. Perhaps DeLillo shares that feeling -- he has adopted a risky approach-avoidance narrative structure. From 1992 Underworld moves backward through five more parts set in earlier time periods until DeLillo rewinds to the Bronx in 1951. While delving into the private lives of Nick and Klara in each part, DeLillo takes the further risk of giving equal or greater time to the voices of their relatives, friends, and contacts, and to historical figures such as Lenny Bruce and J. Edgar Hoover.

Reverse chronology and multiple perspectives work to create DeLillo's underhistory. Digging into the secrets of Nick and Klara, we encounter public revelations of earlier decades -- such as Watergate and Hoover's sexual orientation -- and, more important, what DeLillo implies are the actual but unseen undersides of the periods he surveys. For example, Part II, set in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, is dominated by televised tape of a highway murder and a serial killer, a nightmare become media. Operating daily and perhaps more subversively is the characters' longing for miracles -- a pornography of salvation. In Part IV, set in 1974, subway graffiti and pop art bloom, while systems analysts like Matty sit in basement bunkers locking politics and economics into coded information.

After DeLillo unearths 1951, an epilogue springs us back up to 1992 and sends Nick to an underground test site in Kazakhstan where radioactive waste is atomized with bomb technology. In its largest outlines Underworld is about the nuclear age -- when governments exploded weapons aboveground and citizens burrowed into bomb shelters. Since 1971 and his first novel, DeLillo has taken sometimes blunt instruments to the age's cultural excrescences: television in Americana, sports in End Zone (1972), rock music in (1973), big science in (1976), and fascination with terrorism in many of his other novels. In Underworld, DeLillo gives his most profound subject -- apocalypse -- his most subtle treatment, using all the novelist's devices to examine nuclear malaise and compose a narrative of its displacements. DeLillo awards readers a peace dividend -- millennial hope.

KLARA Sax's spray-painted B-52s express that hope, and are one of several metaphors that represent the ambition and methods of Underworld. Discussing the scale of her installation, which she calls Long Tall Sally, Klara explains that her title comes from a nose decoration on one of the planes, the hand-painted picture of a young woman named after the song. Klara insists on the personal note, and on the pleasures of color. So does DeLillo. The novel has numerous hand-drawn minor characters -- the African-American Manx Martin, father of the boy who first owned the home-run ball; Marvin Lundy, the aging Jewish-American memorabilia dealer who investigates the ball's provenance; and colorful celebrities such as Jackie Gleason and Toots Shor. From all of them, as DeLillo alternates personal and public realms, we get the pleasures of speech that sounds overheard.

Watts Towers, the huge Los Angeles construct of found objects assembled by an Italian immigrant, is also a metaphor in and for Underworld. Visited separately by Nick and Klara, the monument of rubbish is "riddled with epiphanies." Trained by Jesuits to find secret connections, personally and scientifically detached, Nick intuits the bomb as sacred and American culture as landfill in the abyss opened by the bomb. More outgoing and more secular in her vision, Klara records the jagged, crazed beauties of the same American dump. Like eyes in a whale's head, which look in opposite directions, these two characters see everything that DeLillo needs to see through.

A third internal metaphor, a film titled Unterwelt, which DeLillo attributes to Eisenstein, reminds readers that even the most profound epiphanies have undersides -- and that for DeLillo a novel should be "a mystery, in part," a world to explore but never wholly comprehend. In the film a mad scientist "in some netherland crevice" shoots an atomic-ray gun at "cripples and mutants," the "actors trailing their immense bended shadows" behind them. In the novel the shadows are also verbal -- for example, DeLillo's reference to the 1927 gangster film Underworld. Like his punning title -- which includes Dante, the Mafia, hollowed earth, humankind's sediment, ghetto life, underground politics, the subconscious, and linguistic roots -- the novel piles up undertexts so dense and multiple that a first reading is only a test bore.

"I had not thought death had undone so many," Eliot translates Dante early in The Waste Land. The wonder of Underworld is its prodigality, its breadth and depth. But unlike Unterwelt -- and like the bombers, Watts Towers, and Eliot's collage -- Underworld does not move. Characters travel from place to place and perform sometimes violent actions, but the novel doesn't proceed along a plot line. Instead the reader moves through the book, connecting the pieces the author has arranged. "These fragments I have shored against my ruins," a voice says at the end of The Waste Land. DeLillo's fragments are larger, reveal more about sympathetic characters, and more concretely represent their time than Eliot's shards from all history, but Underworld does require an archaeologist's patience. Not all the pieces are equally interesting, but detritus can be put aside for later examination. The final words of The Waste Land are "Shantih shantih shantih," the "Peace that passeth understanding." The last word of Underworld is "Peace."

Illustration by Jim Kroesen

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; An Underhistory of Mid-Century America; Volume 280, No. 4; pages 113-116.