Back in 2011, Andy and I read Don DeLillo’s The Falling Man, our introduction to this towering American literary giant. In my post, I commented: “ Yeah, maybe we should have tackled Underworld …” – a reference to the weighty, award-winning and nominated tome that is perhaps the best known of DeLillo’s 16-novel career.
Flash-forward, and here I am, four years later, fittingly closing my 2014 (yeah, yeah, I know it’s 2015, but hey – it’s a big book, OK?) ANRC DeLillo side challenge with Underworld. About which I have absolutely no qualms declaring The Great American Novel. Caps intentional.
Seriously, guys. This book is the bomb. Quite literally, in fact, pun unintentional. For reasons that will soon become clear.
Of the six DeLillo books I read last year – from his first, Americana, to his most recent, Point Omega, and concentrating on his mid-‘80s to mid-‘90s work – Underworld is by far the best of four exemplary works (the other three being White Noise, Libra and Mao II). The scope and breadth of this novel, set in Cold War-era America in the latter half of the 20th century, is truly breathtaking as it recounts the intertwined lives of a dozen or so main characters, including some historical figures – and the trajectory of a baseball at the epicentre of a legendary National League final.
Its broad, overarching theme is weapons and waste. Its main character, NYC-born Nick Shay, is a waste management executive; his younger brother Matthew (Matty), a disillusioned former military man who served in Vietnam, then later helped develop nuclear arms for the US government, ends up at a non-profit research institute. The novel opens on October 3, 1951, with the National League final between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, a game won by the underdog Giants 5-4 thanks to a three-run homer known as “the shot heard round the world”. At exactly the same time, the USSR conducts an atomic test at a secret location inside its borders; FBI director J. Edgar Hoover receives the news whilst at the game with his celebrity buddies Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason.
Four decades later Nick and his colleague Brian Glassic are at that Kazakhstan site, meeting with executives from Russian firm Tchaika (translated as that perennial scavenger the seagull), which trades nuclear explosions for cash, effectively destroying radioactive waste with its source material – “killing the devil”, as Nick puts it. His Russian counterpart says waste is the “devil twin, the secret history” of weapons; Nick agrees: “What we excrete comes back to haunt us,” he says. Later they tour a medical institute with jars filled with pickled malformed foetuses, then see the survivors of decades of inter-generational radioactive exposure at a regional clinic, dwarf children without limbs, eyes, with abnormal growths. Musing on the birth of the atomic bomb, knowing its aftermath, the Russian concludes: “Once they imagine in the beginning, it makes everything true. Nothing you can believe is not coming true.”
Four decades later Nick is also the owner of the baseball – which costs him $34,500 – from the Giants’ win. During the course of the novel, which is structured around a non-linear narrative that shifts across time and place, the reader follows its ownership – forming a detective-mystery-esque subplot that shifts and turns in unlikely ways, ultimately linking the various threads into a cohesive whole. Which is, in the bigger picture, an apt description of the novel itself. This is a book that relies on, and is guided by, synchronicity in all its befuddling, light-bulb ways – the ostensibly causal connections between people and places that are rooted in otherworldly relations. “Everything connects in the end, or only seems to, or seems to only because it does,” DeLillo notes. It is clever, fascinating concept that is deftly woven throughout these pages.
The reader also learns Nick’s back story, the crux of which we know from the beginning – that he served time in juvenile detention as a 17-year-old for murder – but which is not fully explained till almost the novel’s end. That particular section, Arrangement In Grey And Black – which covers the period (northern) fall 1951 to summer 1952 – so evocatively and beautifully details life in the Bronx that you can almost see and smell the streets. DeLillo adds wry touches that play back into the book’s main themes, such as making minor characters garbage men, et al.
In another section, Cocksucker Blues (named after the infamous Rolling Stones film), set in NYC in the summer of 1974, the city is choking under a hot summer marred by garbage strikes. Again, DeLillo brings the redolent streets alive with his vivid portrayals ; it’s worth noting that he’s a born-and-bred New Yorker who lived there through the periods he depicts. Later, another character, self-styled garbage guerrilla Jesse Detwiler (a DeLillo invention, as far as I can ascertain) – once arrested for stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s trash – opines that cities rise on garbage, buried debris increasing through the decades, but that garbage has its own momentum and it will eventually push back. DeLillo scatters gems like these throughout the pages like big sly winks to his readers.
We are first introduced to a fiftysomething Nick in 1992. The Phoenix-based executive is driving into the Arizona desert, on a whim, after doing business in Houston, prompted by an article in Time magazine on the renowned American artist Klara Sax. As a 17-year-old Nick had a brief fling with Klara, who was then married to teacher Albert Bronzini, who taught chess to Nick’s younger brother Matthew. Now in her early 70s, Klara and her team of neophytes are working on a massive project nicknamed Long Tall Sally, involving the painting of decommissioned Cold War-era bomber jets (“We’re painting these old planes as a celebration,” she tells an interviewer, “… but how do we know for sure the crisis is really over? … is the whole thing a plot to trick the West?” One of the bombers, Long Tall Sally herself, makes an appearance much later in the novel in her original guise. And thus the circular nature of the narrative continues.
Klara becomes a recurring character throughout the book, transforming from 1950s wife-and-mother in the Bronx into toast-of-the-city painter. During the aforementioned interview, Klara recognises herself in a photograph taken at writer Truman Capote’s famous Black and White (masked) Ball in NYC in 1966; she is standing alongside J. Edgar Hoover. In a subsequent section, Hoover, along with his (real-life) deputy Clyde Tolson, get ready for this ball; DeLillo pokes fun at the long-held rumours about the notoriously secretive Hoover and his sexuality, mischievously describing the FBI boss’s delight at his custom-made leather mask with its S+M undertones, and recounting how he tilts mirrors in adjoining rooms so he can watch his friend Tolson dress and undress.
I could go on and on, but that would only make this post about as long as the book itself (827 pages, in case you were wondering). But I’ll make my summation short.
Underworld is a masterpiece. You should read it. No – you must read it. It is fucking brilliant.
That is all.