By Don DeLillo
827 pages, $27.50
Beginning with his first novel, "Americana" (1971), Don DeLillo's subject has been the superfluity, anxiety and paranoia of American culture.
At various points in his previous 10 novels, DeLillo has presented brief vignettes of Italian-American culture drawn from a boyhood in the Bronx and a college education at that bastion of Jesuit intellectualism, Fordham University.
"Underworld" is DeLillo's most monumental work of fiction, demanding comparison with recent blockbusters of literary fiction such as Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon," David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" and William H. Gass' "The Tunnel." But it is also the first of his novels thoroughly devoted to an examination of the place of ethnicity -- specifically that of Italian-Americans -- in the panorama of American life.
Readers of DeLillo are familiar with his often satiric assessment of the pre-processed, disposable, filtered and homogenized material of the American environment. A special target has been the dulling uniformity of media culture, the talking heads that pronounce on the day's events in unaccented news-speak in a hundred thousand identical motel rooms across the country. Much of "Underworld," however, alternates the tenements of the Italian Bronx of the 1950s with the blasted and ghettoized Bronx of the 1990s. These people -- the underclass of a society and their struggles, language and customs -- serve as antidotes to the homogenization of American life.
DeLillo's protagonist, Nick Shay, is an expert in waste management. He confronts the basic crisis of our disposable consumer-oriented economy: what to do with the mountains of toxic garbage generated every day. Nick believes that "waste is a religious thing. We entomb contaminated waste with a sense of reverence and dread. It is necessary to respect what we discard." Though his job forces him to consider the collective refuse of American culture, the great impasto that binds us as a nation, Nick's upbringing still shapes his approach to the problem. "The Jesuits taught me to examine things for second meanings and deeper connections. Were they thinking about waste? We were waste managers, waste giants, we processed universal waste." Nick's co-workers recognize his ethnic identity only as "a voice he does," mimicking a gangster making threats, "expert, stereotyped, pretty funny." But Nick's ethnicity allows him to challenge the universal promise and enormous waste of American culture.
In a section of the novel that collages several scenes from the Bronx between the fall of 1951 and the summer of 1952, a 16-year-old Nick and his friend JuJu discuss the working-class sport of bowling.
"Bowling, to me," Nick says, "it's like lifting weights."
"Do me a favor."
"It's something I rather be bad at it than good at it."
"But do me this one little favor."
"Because being good at it means there's something wrong with you."
"Forget I mentioned it, all right?"
"I rather die the death of a thousand cuts."
"Every time you see a Charlie Chan movie. Which, come to think of it, don't you owe me five bucks from the last time we bowled?"
"It's a brouch," Nick told him.
"Because I'm not trying to win. Because winning insults my dignity. Beat me in pool I'll pay you the five dollars. Otherwise u'gazz'. I'm pulling a brouch."
DeLillo's use of Italian street slang stems in part from his fascination with the texture and source of language, especially the vernacular. He begins the novel with the statement "He speaks in your voice, American." But that language is made of innumerable borrowings from other languages and cultures.
The poet William Carlos Williams once said that the American language came "out of the mouths of Polish mothers." DeLillo pursues this source of American in an accented voice, with borrowed words and uneducated neologisms.
A "brouch" also describes Nick's relationship with America.
As a teen-ager in the Bronx, Nick Shay "takes his radio up to the roof of his building so he can listen alone, a Dodger fan slouched in the gloaming" to the legendary playoff game on Oct. 3, 1951, between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants at the now-demolished Polo Grounds. Baseball fans recall that Bobby Thomson's ninth-inning home run off Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, called "The Shot Heard Round the World," capped an improbable stretch run by the Giants to overtake the Dodgers and win the pennant. "Underworld" follows the path of that baseball as it leaves Branca's hand, sails over the forlorn head of Dodger outfielder Andy Pafko at the wall, into the stands and into history.
First held by a turnstile-jumper from Harlem, Cotter Martin, sold to advertising executive Charles Wainwright for $32 and change, passed to his ne'er-do-well son Chuckie, a navigator on a B-52 making bombing runs over Vietnam, tracked down by a collector of baseball memorabilia, Marvin Lundy, the scuffed baseball is finally acquired by Nick Shay as an expiation for various losses in his life.
Lundy explains that the problem with the Thomson home-run ball is its provenance, to use the art world's term for an object's record of possession. He admits, " 'I don't have the last link that I can connect backwards from the Wainwight ball to the ball making contact with Bobby Thomson's bat.' He looked sourly at the scoreboard clock. 'I have a certain number of missing hours I still have to find.' "
At the risk of sounding too much like the Jesuits, the deeper meaning of the scuffed baseball is the problem of provenance in American culture. You can't trace American culture to some authoritative source. All along the way one encounters fakes, pretenders, inventions and copies. There's no "real McCoy" in America; McCoy was an Irish immigrant whose culture was graded to the American stock.
DeLillo suggests that America is a thing made of plywood, like the replica of the Polo Grounds scoreboard in Lundy's basement, painted over to resemble a civilization. The counterexample in the novel is Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles, a sculpture "rucked in the vernacular" that still achieves an "epic quality," constructed by an Italian immigrant over many years using "whatever objects he could forage and scrounge." DeLillo's "Underworld" creates a mosaic from the found materials of American history from the 1950s through the early 1990s with such invention that these details finally achieve an epic proportion.
Mr. Bronzini, Nick's science teacher, describes the headlines in the New York Times of Oct. 4, 1951. "The front page astonished him, a pair of three-column headlines dominating. To his left the Giants capture the pennant, beating the Dodgers on a dramatic home run in the ninth inning. And to the right, symmetrically mated, same typeface, same-size type . . . the U.S.S.R. explodes an atomic bomb -- kaboom -- details kept secret."
America's entrance into the Cold War, with its pervasive fear of nuclear annihilation, haunts the novel. The confetti that falls on the field of the Polo Grounds is doubled by the human ashes that drifted down onto Hiroshima. In a character doubling that is appallingly apt for the nuclear age, the novel presents J. Edgar Hoover (who shared a celebrity box at the playoff game with Frank Sinatra, Toots Shor and Jackie Gleason) and Catholic nun Sister Edgar as celibate hypochondriacs.
They take it as their special mission to instill the morbid fear of imminent nuclear vaporization. Sister Edgar checks to see that each student wears his identification tag during schoolroom duck-and-cover drills. The two Edgars are joined in a special guest appearance by Lenny Bruce for a mock hysterical account of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, punctuated by the refrain "We're all gonna die!"
The intermingling of an American naivete with its power to rain hemispheric death during that decade is truly sobering. Ronald Reagan's off-the-air sound check joke, "We begin bombing in five minutes," pales in comparison.
"Underworld" is surely DeLillo's magnum opus and secures his place as one of the great American writers of this half-century. If the requirement of an epic is that it describe the most important historical and cultural crises of its period, "Underworld" is the most worthy American contender in that genre since Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow."