Finish It! “Underworld” by Don DeLillo
- Its chronology bounces around.
- The narrative is driven mainly by dialogue.
- You think it’s that vampire movie – it is absolutely NOT that movie.
- 832 pages
“Underworld” is a compelling title for a novel, especially when coupled with the cover’s depiction of the Twin Towers obscured by clouds and a flying bird angled in an eerily airplanelike way. (The cover design does not stem from an apalling degree of insensitivity; the book came out in 1997.) Not to mention several passages regarding the Twin Towers that read with new resonance after 9/11. But that isn’t really what the novel is about; it’s an opportune accidental feeling carried throughout the book. I digress.
DeLillo begins “Underworld” with pages describing Bobby Thompson’s walk-off home run (afterward called The Shot Heard ‘Round the World). DeLillo places the reader at this game in the crowd at the legendary Polo Grounds in New York; you needn’t enjoy baseball to enjoy this setting or appreciate the electricity of it. Thompson’s home run, which clinched the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants, sends an emotional fanbase into pandemonium. A young fan, Cotter Martin, sneaks in to watch the game, eventually snagging the incredibly historic home run away from another fan he’d just befriended. DeLillo (and history) describes this game as the same day the Russians tested a nuclear bomb. The Cold War has commenced, and the baseball takes the reader through time (the years between 1951 and 1997), as it passes through the hands of various owners. The narrative explains the American experience of Russia vs. America while mingling fictional characters with various heroes of cultural history (Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce, among others). “Underworld” covers the conflict in close detail and from a street-level perspective. It’s definitely a novel for anyone fascinated by global politics, media and culture.
Klara and Nick, the main characters, meet up in an Arizona desert in the 1990s and meander back in time as the story jumps chronologically through them and others until the early 1950s. Big events play out on the national stage, and each character’s motivations and circumstances are revealed, hinting that each life story shares synchronicity; the snapshots of the characters slowly intertwine into each others’ lives.
The baseball is viewed by many of the characters as an object with a history; by simply owning the ball, they feel they’ll also acquire the history that comes along with it. A preacher in the book discusses how history is found in the most common of places – only that it’s hidden where few think to look. By learning the history of objects, the characters become more in-focus with themselves and society. Some characters deal in various types of waste: human waste, nuclear waste, garbage, etc. Every product, package, wrapper or explosion has a consequence. This is the core of “Underworld” – it is the waste that humankind feverishly tries to hide away like a secret. But it’s always there, and eventually we’re forced to confront the waste we create and the fears that we hide behind, holding us back from true desires.
Sure, the chronology is a bit jumbled, but it all ties together in the end. The rewards of persevering through this dizzying novel are endless. The dialogue-driven narrative means that good listeners will enjoy this book. Reading DeLillo (any novel, especially “White Noise”) before “Underworld” will help an intimidated reader, but is not a necessity. In short, “Underworld” finds roots of today in the small moments of the past.
Postscript: DeLillo has said that the inspiration for “Underworld” was the Oct. 4, 1951 front page of The New York Times (look it up). Essential reading: the Lenny Bruce comedy routines about the Cuban Missile Crisis in the novel. If, AND ONLY IF, you can’t make it through the entire book, read the first section about the baseball game, and then the Lenny Bruce routines which are found on pages 504-9, 544-8, 580-6, 590-5, and 623-33. They are remarkable in the context of the novel, but are suitable to be read independently of the story with great results. Upon finishing the novel, these were the areas that I shuffled back to immediately.