BY DAVE ALLEN Not long after Don DeLillo’s Underworld was published in 1997, it was canonized by critics and readers alike as the Next Great American Novel, and a 2006 survey in the New York Times cemented its cornerstone status among modern American letters. The praise, whether long-passed or more recent, is justified: DeLillo unseals nearly 50 years of American history from the stifling amber of nostalgia, while the narrative spans both coasts and the vast spaces between them without leeching the intimacies that connect them. In short, it contains multitudes. Many of the characters, after dissipating their energies through work in ballistics or waste management or through private obsessions with reconstructing secret histories, find themselves lost in their own lives. The Cold War-era buildup of weaponry, paranoia and animosity left a corrosive residue on the face American psyche and, by extension, DeLillo’s cast of lost souls — one and all, to a man, in ways big and small, disfigured within.
DeLillo opens the novel with a novella-length evocation of a momentous baseball game in 1955 and the tumultuous streets of Upper Manhattan that surround it. The ballgame attendees spit and swear; they leap gates to get in and riot in the streets afterward. He doesn’t whitewash the scene with faux-innocence. The good ol’ days weren’t so good. Fear was in the air then, but at least you knew what you were afraid of. Fast forward to 1992. Delillo’s protagonist, Nick Shay, is bedeviled by what Donald Rumsfeld calls ‘known unknowns, that is things we know we don’t know.’ Shay trades in waste-management, shuttling from Phoenix to L.A. to New York to Moscow, for both his work and for his dogged, distracted pursuit of a relic from that long-ago ballgame. He longs for “the days of disarray,” the carefree grab-assing and petty crime of his youth in the Bronx, when he didn’t care that he couldn’t put a finger on the forces that bedeviled him. In the regimented present, adrift in the international currents of weaponry and waste, he’s aimless and awash, suspicious of the consequences of his actions but too jaded to suss them out.
In capturing these feelings, DeLillo speaks to our present condition: paranoia and mistrust ratcheted ever higher, like a drug we don’t even know we are addicted to. As he tracks Nick’s wanderings, the private obsessions of baseball fans, and the work of scientists stoking the fires of the arms races, DeLillo brings an unlikely humanity to the cutthroat, us-vs-them mentality that permeated Cold War-era politics and the personalities surrounding them. In one notable digression, DeLillo frames infamous FBI director and paranoiac J. Edgar Hoover in an unexpectedly artful way — complex, insecure, wounded, longing for his younger, attractive right-hand man — all for a figure that inspired such revulsion among DeLillo’s contemporaries, both inside and outside of the literary and social elite. It’s not merely a softer side that DeLillo brings out — it’s a fully human one, and until a contemporary author can bring that kind of depth of character and evenness of tone to Dick Cheney, this chapter of Underworld will stand alone. The diversions in the novel’s fifth section, touching on Hoover as well as Lenny Bruce, a NYC ad exec, a crew of bomber test pilots, and others — make the return to Shay, his turbulent past and his blank-faced present an almost cruel shift, seem like so much swirling around an absent center. Today, the nation is like Shay — too distracted, too fractured, pulled too far in too many stress positions, to focus or to feel. We are both the heirs to Nick Shay’s early-‘90’s Clintonian anomie and the terror-stricken keepers of the fowls of karma, come home to roost on a soft September morn. Like Faulkner said, ‘the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.’