'Underworld' - DeLillo's triumph

September 28, 1997|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,special the sun

"Underworld," by Don DeLillo. Scribner. 827 pages. $27.50.

Don DeLillo's magnificent new "Underworld," at once among the finest works of American fiction of this century, opens at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951. Behind Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, who vomits on Sinatra's shoe, and Toots Shor sits the sinister J. Edgar Hoover. On the same day Bobby Thomson hits a home run that breaks the hearts of the Dodgers and the Soviets explode an atomic bomb.

DeLillo has produced in one rich volume a work which surpasses even John Dos Passos' three-volume "USA." DeLillo's first novel was called "Americana" (1971). Now he has written an astoundingly brilliant history of the second half of this American century.

Personal and political histories intersect; there were 20,000 empty seats at the Polo Grounds that day, perhaps because people sensed the ominous nuclear bomb test. For DeLillo's characters live within history even as it defines them.

His people also make history, not least Cotter, the 14-year-old black youth who comes away with the home run ball, "an object with a history"; one unworthy recipient as an adult sprays bombs mercilessly down on Vietnam.

DeLillo's characters are themselves fascinated by history; a crowd of art world hangers-on watches the Zapruder film. They are obsessed by their personal histories, like Nick Shays, whose life is defined by that moment when his father, Jimmy Costanza, went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. "The failure it brought down on us does not diminish," Nick perceives in middle age, now an executive in waste management. Garbage, like the past, swirls through this novel, and becomes its central metaphor.

Eschewing chronology, DeLillo traverses 50 years colored by nuclear terror, radiation poisoning, McCarthyist threats, Korea and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile crisis and consumerist manipulation, "a single narrative sweep."

America imposes its artifacts: the Zapruder film and Jell-O molds, J. Edgar Hoover and Lenny Bruce, visions of Sputnik and protest marches, "dungarees" and cocaine. Two days of this half century disturb the dreams of its inhabitants, that afternoon Bobby Thomson hit the home run and when JFK was murdered. Nick suddenly remarks: "that is not my head on someone else's body in the photograph that's introduced as evidence." Lee Harvey Oswald forever inhabits the psyches of DeLillo's people.

Unlike Dos Passos', DeLillo produces no great men, no heroes, no central character. Nick and Klara Sax, a housewife turned artist, appear most frequently, in chapters which follow a jagged anti-linear line, even as black endpapers are scattered throughout the book. The free association of nightmares replaces chronology for this novelist whose respect for history .. raises him above callow post-modernism.

Among the other characters are: Hoover and his life's companion Junior (Clarence Tolson). An authoritarian teaching nun, named Sister Edgar, is the FBI director's alter ego, kindred spirit and fellow celibate.

Finer examples of humanity include a transcendent graffiti artist named Ismael Munoz, also known as Moonman 157. Black and white and Hispanic are represented, most memorably in homeless 12-year-old Esmeralda, raped and thrown off a roof in the South Bronx; Esmeralda dies before she can become a fictional "character."

DeLillo keeps his distance from all, judges none, sympathizes occasionally. Only for the paradigmatic blackmailing G-Man with his vicious dossiers is his scorn unrelenting: "Edgar hates Harry Truman, he would like to see him writhing on a parquet floor, felled by chest pains." But DeLillo is beyond narrow partisan political concerns: Democrats and Republicans are rendered identical as Ike, Nixon, Carter and Reagan - all pose for a photo op with Bobby Thomson and pitcher "poor Ralph Branca," who survived his disgrace "because he's white."

"Underworld" with its "underworld of images" points not only to the Mafia, although Jimmy Constanza was a bookie who may have been killed by the mob for not paying off on a debt. Rather, it refers as well to "Unterwelt," an undiscovered film made by Sergei Eisenstein in the thirties when Stalin stalked him unrelentingly. With its mad scientist and deformed victims, "Unterwelt" presages the deformities wreaked on humanity by nuclear radiation.

"Underworld" is a page turner and a masterwork, a sublime novel and a delight to read. DeLillo, whose project is to restore a sense of history to this benighted culture, who understands that "everything is connected in the end" - let praise be heaped upon him.

Joan Mellen teaches in the creative writing program at Templ University, has written 13 books, and like Don DeLillo grew up in the Bronx.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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