Underworld: A Novel
Our lives, our half century.
Nick Shay and Klara Sax knew each other once, intimately, and they meet again in the American desert. He is trying to outdistance the crucial events of his early life, haunted by the hard logic of loss and by the echo of a gunshot in a basement room. She is an artist who has made a blood struggle for independence.
Don DeLillo’s mesmerizing novel opens with a legendary baseball game played in New York in 1951. The glorious outcome—the home run that wins the game is called the Shot Heard Round the World—shades into the grim news that the Soviet Union has just tested an atomic bomb.
The baseball itself, fought over and scuffed, generates the narrative that follows. It takes the reader deeply into the lives of Nick and Klara and into modern memory and the soul of American culture—from Bronx tenements to grand ballrooms to a B-52 bombing raid over Vietnam.
A generation’s master spirits come and go. Lennny Bruce cracking desperate jokes, Mick Jagger with his devil strut, J. Edgar Hoover in a sexy leather mask. And flashing in the margins of ordinary life are the curiously connectecd materials of the culture. Condoms, bombs, Chevy Bel Airs and miracle sites on the Web.
Underworld is a story of men and women together and apart, seen in deep clear detail and in stadium-sized panoramas, shadowed throughout by the overarching conflict of the Cold War. It is a novel that accepts every challenge of these extraordinary times—Don DeLillo’s greatest and most powerful work of fiction.
While Eisenstein documented the forces of totalitarianism and Stalinism upon the faces of the Russian peoples, DeLillo offers a stunning, at times overwhelming, document of the twin forces of the cold war and American culture, compelling that “swerve from evenness” in which he finds events and people both wondrous and horrifying. Underworld opens with a breathlessly graceful prologue set during the final game of the Giants-Dodgers pennant race in 1951. Written in what DeLillo calls “super-omniscience” the sentences sweep from young Cotter Martin as he jumps the gate to the press box, soars over the radio waves, runs out to the diamond, slides in on a fast ball, pops into the stands where J. Edgar Hoover is sitting with a drunken Jackie Gleason and a splenetic Frank Sinatra, and learns of the Soviet Union’s second detonation of a nuclear bomb. It’s an absolutely thrilling literary moment. When Bobby Thomson hits Branca’s pitch into the outstretched hand of Cotter—the “shot heard around the world”—and Jackie Gleason pukes on Sinatra’s shoes, the events of the next few decades are set in motion, all threaded together by the baseball as it passes from hand to hand.
“It’s all falling indelibly into the past,” writes DeLillo, a past that he carefully recalls and reconstructs with acute grace. Jump from Giants Stadium to the Nevada desert in 1992, where Nick Shay, who now owns the baseball, reunites with the artist Kara Sax. They had been brief and unlikely lovers 40 years before, and it is largely through the events, spinoffs, and coincidental encounters of their pasts that DeLillo filters the Cold War experience. He believes that “global events may alter how we live in the smallest ways,” and as the book steps back in time to 1951, over the following 800-odd pages, we see just how those events alter lives. This reverse narrative allows the author to strip away the detritus of history and pop culture until we get to the story’s pure elements: the bomb, the baseball, and the Bronx. In an epilogue as breathless and stunning as the prologue, DeLillo fast-forwards to a near future in which ruthless capitalism, the Internet, and a new, hushed faith have replaced the Cold War’s blend of dread and euphoria.
Through fragments and interlaced stories—including those of highway killers, artists, celebrities, conspiracists, gangsters, nuns, and sundry others—DeLillo creates a fragile web of connected experience, a communal Zeitgeist that encompasses the messy whole of five decades of American life, wonderfully distilled.
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One was a book that everyone was reading: Don DeLillo’s Underworld. I’d read the first chapter, then titled “Pafko at the Wall,” when it was published in Harper’s in 1993 and presumed that it was a self-contained novella (a brilliant one, the best fiction about baseball ever written and, I’m happy to admit, a piece that taught me all kinds of stuff that I was able to use in my own novel, The Veracruz Blues). When I heard that DeLillo had subsumed this masterpiece into a much longer novel, I could barely wait for its publication. The Friday the book came out, I stood outside the door of my local bookstore while a clerk opened the just-delivered boxes. I went home that weekend and read the book greedily, awestruck, afraid, and stunned by DeLillo’s paranoid wonderland of material and technique. Underworld is that rare, big, advertised-as-good-for-you novel that makes good on its promises. Even better, I had the pleasure of being the first kid on my block to have read it, which I have spent the last few weeks lording over the many friends of mine who are now in the middle of the thing (I should not be proud of this, I know; sue me). —Mark Winegardner