January 20, 2014

Guest Review! Underworld by Don DeLillo

Author: Don DeLillo
Paperback: 827 pgs
Published: 1998
Publisher: Picador

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Underworld is about the second half of the twentieth century in America and about two people, an artist and an executive, whose lives intertwine in New York in the fifties and again in the nineties. With cameo appearances by Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Thompson, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Toots Shor, “this is DeLillo’s most affecting novel…a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art” (The New York Times). 

When you read a good book, it becomes a part of you. You find yourself absently thinking about the characters throughout the day, and, maybe, you even try to emulate some of their characteristics. You find solace and excitement in taking on other lives if only for the time you're absorbed in a book. You know that these people are not really you and you are not really them. But, sometimes, a book comes along that explains who you are and how you were shaped and that's a totally different thing.

Don DeLillo's Underworld is this different thing. It is not your average novel. There's no straight forward plot, it’s hard to say who the protagonist is (You'll probably decide it's Nick Shay, but what about Matt Shay? or Klara Sax? or Sister Edgar? They are all given almost as much care and depth and time by DeLillo that they could easily have their own novels), the antagonist is not a person but time, and there's no prophetic ending that tells you how to go live your life after reading the book. That's not the point.

The point is to show readers in 1997 when the novel was first published, how the Cold War changed and reshaped the lives of Americans and an increasingly globalized world. Fittingly titled, the novel leads you through the undercurrents of lost confidence in American ideals and terror present in all things because of nuclear weapons. American scientists triumphantly created nuclear weapons to feel safe and scare the rest of the world, but when the Russians pointed them back at America, the vision of our own mortality has scared us irrevocably.

The prologue to Underworld is titled "The Triumph of Death" and is set in New York at the Polo Grounds on October 3rd, 1951. The New York Giants who have had a miraculous come-from-behind season are playing their rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers, to decide who will win the National League title and face the New York Yankees in the World Series. Giants’ outfielder Bobby Thompson is batting against Dodger's pitcher Ralph Branca who throws a safe pitch, a fastball high and inside, but Thompson decides to swing and ends up hitting a home run over the left field fence to give the Giants the win. The crowd erupts and storms the field while the announcers scream into their microphones trying to express the whole season's excitement ending in one explosive moment. People all over New York are coming into the street to talk about Bobby Thompson's homer, which will later be called, "The Shot Heard 'Round the World." Except, nobody knows that J. Edgar Hoover, who's in attendance with Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, and Toots Shor has been pulled aside and told that the Russians have just detonated their own nuclear weapon.

This moment will shape the rest of the novel and to DeLillo, the following decades of American life. This event is similar to how the September 11th attacks forever changed American’s views of the world. Except, the Cold War was not one specific event and it became a way of life that settled into their bones like nuclear fall-out from so many nuclear scares. But the novel is not a pessimistic attack on American ideals. DeLillo writes a patient account of how America could no longer enjoy its great past time with the purity of past decades because life was now shrouded by impending nuclear attack.

DeLillo's writing is not difficult and flashingly post-modern despite the novel's lack of formal structure. Although you might not always know why one chapter follows the other, it always feels right as it moves forward softly, but earnestly, and even when it seems reserved, there's a feeling of strength. DeLillo is gentle and you never feel like he's admonishing you for not knowing something. He has synthesized an immense amount of historical information to help us understand where we are at as a culture. He seems to understand that just like those characters you can carry around in your head all day, you are and you aren’t the people he’s writing about.

Guest Reviewer, Mike!

Mike Robbins is currently an Americorps VISTA volunteer in New Haven, CT. Mike has always enjoyed books across many genres. His favorite books growing up were Jurassic Park and Timeline by Michael Crichton and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. He finds books to be a place for people to connect and learn privately about themselves and the world. Novels help to slow down and make navigable increasingly fast-paced lives.
When he's not volunteering at a school or tackling a new author, he likes to skateboard, swim, and play basketball. He's a New York Knicks fan even though they don't have the best management strategies!
He would like to thank everyone at the Good Choice Reading blog for including him and his book reviews on their site. Happy reading!

1 comment:

  1. I've just finished watching season 1 of The Americans and it also takes place during this same time period. While this is not the type of book that I'd read for light entertainment, I am definitely going to run down a copy. Thanks for the review.


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