Review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld

Underworld by Don DeLillo
Hardcover, 832 pages
Published by Scribner
Publication date: October 1, 1997
ISBN: 0684842696
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg for Authors Review of Books 10/17/1997

Everyone Ought To Read Underworld Twice

Okay, so I’m biased. I thought Don DeLillo walked on water long before I ever laid eyes on his latest novel, the Cold War behemoth, Underworld. So let me get the opinion part of this review out of the way straight off. Underworld is unquestionably one of the most important, most culturally resonant, most accomplished, most technically innovative novels to come along in years. Read it. Buy two copies and send one to an old friend. If you’ve had a pulse any time during the last 57 years, the book has got something in it for you, something that you will remember. Especially if you’re an American.

Don DeLillo writes careful sentences. He pays attention to every word. He’s got an almost mystic sense of the rhythms of language. He can write dialogue that somehow gets away with sounding hyper-real on the page, when in fact it’s no more mimetic of the way people really talk than anything in Henry James. DeLillo didn’t like the standard conventions, so he invented new codes. When you talk about DeLillo, you aren’t talking on Updike’s patio, you’re talking in Pynchon’s back yard. William Gaddis is playing bocce ball back there, too, and they’re setting a place at the picnic table for the spirit of James Joyce who, though dead, insists on taking part in their recreation. Paul Auster is lighting their cigars, David Foster Wallace is trying to hop the fence, and Jonathan Franzen is back home, writing them all a great big love letter.

I’m just spouting now. Call me Ishmael. Or make me a graffiti artist and call me Ismael, a.k.a. Moonman 157. I love DeLillo puns. About the book, Underworld. Read it. It’s a great book. Speaking of Ishmael. If you’re going to write “The Great American Novel” (if such a leviathan can in fact yet exist), what sport immediately pops into your mind? Soccer? Golf? Tennis? I don’t think so.

Underworld Is About Baseball.

The Polo Grounds, October 3, 1951, the Dodgers-Giants Playoffs. Underworld kicks off with a transcendent 60-page omniscient, filmic, multithreaded account of the final game of the 1951 Dodgers-Giants playoff series at the Polo Grounds. Branca throws the pitch, Thomson hits the ball, Pafko’s at the wall. It is 3:58 P.M. “The shot heard round the world” that decides the series goes over the wall just after J. Edgar Hoover (at the game with Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and Toots Shoor) has been informed by Clyde, his faithful homoerotic G-man companion, that the Russians have successfully tested a nuclear device within their own borders. So with one “cold shot” we see the beginning of the Cold War and the end of the Dodgers pennant hopes (and in NY, NY, the second event is bigger news than the first.)

The ball becomes a totem, an organizational device for the novel, and a symbol. Nick Shay, the central character in the novel (and the occasional first-person narrator), forks over $34,500 for the ball when he purchases it. He tosses it at night, alone, when he thinks about his wife cheating him and his father who abandoned him. He’s the last to own the ball. Along its way to him, the ball changes hands from Cotter Martin, the black kid who scooped it up at the Polo Grounds to Manx Martin, his father, who sells his kid’s pride for $32.50 to Charles Wainright, a Manhattan advertising executive who gives it to his kid, Chuckie, hoping that it will mean something to him, which it doesn’t, after which it probably though not clearly ends up with his wife Susan, who somehow gets it to the Rauch family, who have it in the car when Juddy Rauch is murdered, presumably by the Texas Highway Killer — anyway, Marvin Lundy, after a life-long search, gets his hands on it. Once he’s dying, he shows the ball to Brian Glasic, who tells Nick Shay about it. Nick Shay buys it and uses it to heft around his regrets: “I didn’t buy the object for the glory and the drama attached to it . . . . It’s all about losing.”

Underworld Is About Connections.

The connections spin off of two central hubs — the baseball and Nick Shay himself. DeLillo’s world is that web which connects the ball game, the physical ball, Nick Shay, and the culture which surrounds him. The central narrative is the personal one. On one level, Underworld is a pure bildungsroman. We start with middle-aged Nick Shay, and hop back in time to all of his big moments — the day his father went out for cigarettes and never came back, the day he cheated on his wife with a swinger in a California hotel, the day he shot a man. Nick, “a country of one” is taking us on a reluctant tour of his own, personal underworld. We discover what he’s lost along the way, and what he has discovered for the losing.

We also learn about the lives of Nick’s friends and relations — Matty, his brother, a “bombhead” and chess prodigy, whose dreams of a “normal” family life fall apart in the Nevada desert — Marian, his wife who grew up in 60s Madison, and who in turn betrays him — Brian Glasic, his best friend and betrayer — Klara Sax, an artist with whom Nick had an affair at age 17, who moves through and across subcultures in New York and California — and then, in addition, all the significant people in each of their lives. In a conventional novel, the influence that these relationships had on the central characters might be all there was to it, and any flaws in rendering these relationships might mar the novel as a whole. But in Underworld, the emotional landscape is only half of the game — it is just as important to DeLillo is that these people give him the opportunity to move around space and time, to sample America from the 50s to the present. Thus we get to Dow Day (October 18, 1967) in Madison, Wisconsin through Marian. We get to see a bootleg Rolling Stones documentary, the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and the (fictional) missing Sergei Eisenstein film, Unterwelt, through Klara Sax. We get the quintessential portrait of a “normal” family during the containment-culture 50s through Eric Demming, a friend of Matt. You get the picture. It’s a big country. We get around.

The novel ends up, appropriately I think, on the World Wide Web, where everything is connected, where Sister Edgar, Cold War nun, is one click away from J. Edgar Hoover, the “other Edgar,” where a site on miracles is only one click away from a site on H-Bombs. The Web may very well be the organizing principle DeLillo had in mind as he set about structuring this massive web of language.

Underworld Is About the Famous Dead.

If a novel were a symphony, we could say that Lenny Bruce and J. Edgar Hoover both play important “leitmotif” roles in the “musical composition” of Underworld. Lenny Bruce, with whom the author clearly shares an artistic identification, is rendered during the Cuban Missile Crisis, screaming “We’re all gonna die!” at audiences in San Francisco, Chicago, and Miami. The Lenny Bruce material in the novel is so convincingly voiced that I, for one, was left wondering how much of it was actual Lenny Bruce and how much of it was Don DeLillo Lenny Bruce, and if I would ever be able to tell the difference between the two again.

Hoover is particularly highlighted during the prologue, snatching Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death” from his shoulder and thinking about the bomb, and during the Black and White Ball hosted by Truman Capote in November, 1966. Hoover’s voice is as well imagined as was Lee Harvey Oswald’s in DeLillo’s novel Libra. The theft of his garbage by leftist archaeologists offers one of the novel’s greatest moments of hilarity. Speaking of garbage,

Underworld Is About Garbage.

Nick Shay is an executive at Waste Containment (Whiz Co). The novel takes us on a tour of all the latest in waste disposal techniques, from the Fresh Kills landfill in New Jersy to a human waste freighter floating in the ocean without a port of entry to an underground nuclear explosion waste disposal system in Kazakhstan.

Nick Shay and family recycle.

There’s a fair amount of energy dedicated to condoms, empty and filled with sperm.

Human waste is a recurring theme.

In the sections about the Wall, a poverty stricken New York neighborhood, garbage dumped from restaurants, discarded aluminum cans, and wrecked-out cars become the components of an entire economic system.

Nick and Klara both visit Watts Towers, an assemblage of garbage turned into art.

Garbage takes on an almost metaphysical role in Underworld. The baseball, the coveted Holy Grail of the novel, is itself a kind of garbage, a remnant.

The personal memories that Nick slowly strips away become a kind of garbage as well. The self as a toxic waste dump.

The culture itself as scatology. The scatological analysis of culture by Lenny Bruce.

Oppenheimer says the bomb is merde.

Underworld Is About Betrayal.

Nick Shay’s wife betrays him with his best friend and co worker, Brian Glasic (and, to make matters worse, she does heroin while she’s betraying him).

Earlier, Nick had betrayed his wife with a swinger at the same hotel as his waste convention.

Much earlier, when he was 17, Nick assisted Klara Sax in betraying her then-husband Albert Bronzini, thus deflating almost all happiness from the poor man’s life.

Manx Martin betrays his boy, Cotter Martin, by selling the baseball, his most prized possession, for a lousy $32.50.

During the height of the Cold War, betrayal was the theme of the age. Hoover compiled dossiers on everyone. There was a Red around every corner.

Nick Shay signed a petition in support of Senator McCarthy.

Nick Shay’s father went out to get cigarettes and never came back.

Think about Leopold and Marion Bloom and Blazes Boylan in Ulysses, and poor Stephen Daedelus’ soulaching too. I think DeLillo was when he wrote this book.

Underworld Isn’t Perfect.

Oddly, one of my favorite things about Don DeLillo is that he will occasionally stumble in print. The prose which was transcendent a few pages back will get momentarily clunky. He’ll make a narrative choice that will hit with a resounding thud. And yet we’ll still fly through it, because the story as a whole is still rolling, and on a sentence-by-sentence basis, his phraseology is still sound, still clicking. He’s human. If this sentence doesn’t work, you move on the next one.

In Underworld, the young Nick Shay character seems strangely disjointed from the older Nick Shay, not because of a lack of biographical detail and verisimilitude, but because of the voice or its absence. It seems as if the closer we get to the events that are at the emotional heart of the novel, the further we get from Nick Shay. By the time we get around to the manslaughter which is his darkest secret, it doesn’t feel like much of a revelation. The young Nick Shay is basically a hood, and we don’t get much more than that. There is a quality to the depiction of young Nick which suggests “wise elder recalls wasted youth with a jaundice eye” (a perspective which, since we’re apparently getting it through the older Nick, may be appropriate). While young Nick does all of the things a young hood does, we don’t get access to any sense of the highly formed personality that Nick undoubtedly had at the time. We get no great DeLillo headtalk for young Nick. Maybe this emotional withdrawal is itself a product of the author’s identification with the character, but I found myself wishing we could have seen more through young Nick’s eyes, in his head at a particular moment in time. But it’s tough for even a great writer to go from Cold War, Jesuit-toughened, philosophical middle-aged executive to young hood and do each part equal justice.

Underworld Is About the American Zeitgeist.

Fundamentally, Underworld is a novel of great historical significance. It is the first novel to take into account the whole depth and breadth of American culture during the Cold War. As Marvin Lundy points out in the novel, history is like a pointillist painting. When we’re up close to it, all we can see are isolated dots of color. It is only when we step away from the canvas, when we have a certain amount of distance from it, that we can see the picture as a whole. The Cold War ended eight years ago. In the future, it may be recorded as one of the most absurd periods of American experience, one in which the “American” world view was reduced to binary oppositions, to good and bad, to black and white, to Communist and McCarthyite. It was a culture in which divisions were clearly drawn, and normality was clearly defined. It was period in which official language inflicted its codes on an entire culture. As William S. Burroughs said, “language is a virus,” and as DeLillo shows, language also became the only weapon in another Cold War, the one that divided our country over Vietnam, the one that impeached Nixon, the one fought by Lenny Bruce and by Don DeLillo.

Twenty years from now, when college students enter a literature classroom to study the “Late 20th Century American Novel,” Underworld will be at the top of the list, precisely because of the fact that contains so much of the spirit of the age, both the one that has recently passed, and the tenuous, uncertain one that we now find ourselves living in. Underworld is one of those rare books that tells us our own story. DeLillo has written America a secret history of the recent past, a history that was only kept secret from us because we were living in middle of it.

This review was originally published on the Authors site at the Miningco (

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