In which Netty goes on a trip through Americana with author-of-choice deLillo …

March 19, 2014

ImageI could have chosen Phillip Roth. Or Kurt Vonnegut. Or William Faulkner. Or Ernest Hemingway. Those are the authors who have made the biggest impression on me during the past six years of ANRC. Along with, I should hasten to add – and in order to retilt the gender balance somewhat – Nadine Gordimer and Joan Didion. Neither of those women was on the short list simply because I have already made good on the promise to myself to make further inroads into their back catalogues.

But no, I picked Don deLillo, an author with whom I have been intrigued since Andy and I read Falling Man for ANRC several years ago now.  (You can check in with what I had to say about it here.) Indeed, when I did my end-of-year round-up that year, deLillo came in second behind only … Didion. I have since only read one more of his books – 2003’s Cosmopolis, a mere slip of a thing at just over 200 pages. Because that’s the other thing about deLillo. He has written some seriously fuck-off-mammoth books. Several of which I have committed myself to reading this year. God help me …

Like Andy’s Adventures in Iris Murdoch (that should be a book title in itself!), I chose to go back to the very beginning with deLillo. His first novel, published in 1971, was Americana – and that’s where my deLillo mini-challenge starts. My 2011 Penguin edition features an endorsement from none other than Martin Amis on its cover. “A writer who, once you read him, makes you want to read everything he has done,” Amis has penned. Three books in, I can but concur.

DeLillo, a native New Yorker, worked as an advertising copywriter before quitting the industry and devoting himself to fiction writing. Write what you know is a common mantra for first-time novelists, and it’s no surprise that deLillo’s first effort is set in his hometown and features characters involved in the advertising and television industries.

Americana is the first-person narrative of 28-year-old New York City television executive David Bell. Bell, who hails from a comfortable east coast family – both his grandfather and his father were scions of advertising – has rather effortlessly scaled the heights of his cut-throat industry. But he constantly needs to stay on top of and negotiate the poisonous, dog-eat-dog politics of his office. On a personal level, he maintains a friendly relationship with his ex-wife Meredith, who lives in the same apartment building and with whom he still occasionally sleeps; otherwise he does not want for female company.

Bell is planning a new project for the TV network, a documentary series on the Navaho Indians, about which his colleagues remain unsure. Undeterred, he sets out with a cache of film equipment into the heart of the Midwest, en route to Arizona, in a campervan with three travelling companions – Sullivan, a thirtysomething sculptor in whom Bell has a wary interest; Pike, a 60-plus ex-military man; and Brand, an ex-junkie, would-be novelist (“The whole country’s going to puke blood when they read it,” he declares).

Bell, meanwhile, wants to make his own movie (“A long messy autobiographical-type film … a long unmanageable movie full of fragments of everything that’s part of my life”). As the trio inadvertently set up shop in Fort Curtis – with Bell reckoning he has a couple of weeks before he needs to be on-set in Arizona  – the project takes on a life of its own. It becomes Bell’s singleminded, obsessive focus, as he ropes in local townsfolk, and a couple of actors he meets en route, to take on roles in it – eventually jettisoning the planned Navaho doco and, thus, his big-time TV exec job.

With filming of his project finally complete and his travelling companions ready to return back east, Bell decides to push onwards and hits the road solo. He meets a wealthy Texan businessman called Clevenger and joins him on a road trip that culminates in a depraved orgy. From there, Bell’s journey quickly peters out until there is only one thing left for him to do – go home.

Americana is divided into four parts – the first introduces Bell and outlines his current-day situation; the second delves into his youth and family background; the third involves the road trip and making of his film; and the fourth is its immediate aftermath. DeLillo reportedly worked on the novel for several years, before his prolific 1970s period (in which he published six books, including this debut). Even for a first novel, there is a certain cool, considered assurance behind the prose, foreshadowing what is to come. But while I really enjoyed the first three parts, I felt the book ran out of steam and veered off course in the over-the-top final section, which jars against the tone of its predecessors and is a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to wrap it all up.  

Bell is not a particularly likeable character – he is smug, arrogant and overly self-assured, sort of a Don Draper meets Patrick Bateman (without the serial killing, obviously). But he is also teetering on the edge of a certain type of madness, and as the book progresses and the more tenuous his grip on reality becomes, the more he elicits a certain sympathy from the reader – especially played against the poignant backdrop of his family background, particularly the relationship with his late mother, in part two.

Americana is a book very much of its time and place – the disintegration of the idealism of the 1960s and the heralding of a new, hard-edged decade, viewed through the lens of the quintessential road trip and the death of the American dream, full of slick, slyly dark humour. As such, it has much in common with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or even Kerouac’s On The Road, thematically speaking. Which is why I can forgive it a few flaws in its latter pages. It is also interesting to note that deLillo revised Americana for later editions – as my copy was published in 2011, I presume that that is the version I have read, although I am also curious enough about the original to want to track it down.

Overall, Americana is a promising first step on my year-long deLillo journey. Like they say in Bell’s TV business, stay tuned.



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