Clutter, Culture & Cold War

a review by David Pelovitz

Don Delillo, Underworld.
Publisher?, 1997.

Unknowable details, unusual chronologies, the interplay between the individual and the crowd, unofficial histories, and the conversion of trash to art are all themes present in DeLillo's earlier works, but in Underword, He weaves them together into a history of Cold War America that is his most ambitious novel to date. The result is a masterwork.

The novel opens with a Prologue composed of scenes from the (year?) World Series playoff between (team?) and The (Los Angeles?) Dodgers in which Bobby Thomson hits "the shot heard round the world" to win the pennant for (team-city?). He offers us glimpses of the famous and the ordinary: Russ Hodges, who nurses a sore throat while announcing the game; the owners's box, occupied by Jackie Gleason, Toots Shor, Frank Sinatra, and J. Edgar Hoover; and Cotter Martin, a Harlem youth who has jumped the gate to see the game, and who befriends Bill Waterson, a middle-aged fan. The game in progress, Hoover receives news that the Soviets have tested a nuclear bomb. While Hoover contemplates an image of mass death, Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson make baseball history, Hodges spins his version for the radio audience, and Cotter and Bill engage in their own struggle for the game-winning ball.

From here, DeLillo sends the narrative in two different directions. The bulk of the novel is divided into segments of a few months to twenty years, in reverse chronological order. When the novel moves ahead to the 1990's, it fixes its attention on Nick Shay and Klara Sax who had been lovers in the early 1950's when they lived in the same Bronx neighborhood. Now, Klara is a famous artist running a desert art collective engaged in repainting decommissioned bombers, and Nick is a waste analyst living in Phoenix with his family. While Nick manages society's garbage, Klara converts it into art. Garbage is a persistent theme in Underworld.

We soon learn that Nick has bought what he believes to be the historic Series game-winning ball. To him, it has special meaning; "It's about the mystery of bad luck, the mystery of loss." But Nick's boss, Big Sims, disputes Nick's claim that the ball is authentic and offers another view: "The mythology of the game. Nobody ever showed and made a verifiable claim to the ball. Or a dozen people showed up, each with a ball, which amounts to the same thing." (Need to check this quote)

The novel then takes us back in time to the story of how Nick got the ball, and of the missing hours between the game and the purchase of the ball the next day by a man named Wainwright. DeLillo continues to widen his focus to include much of Nick's family, Klara's ex-husband, figures from the old Bronx neighborhood, and several people who owned the baseball as DeLillo pieces together this history of late Twentieth Century America, creating a sharp counterpoint in the history of the country and the mystery of the ball.

This narrative device works on several levels. The moment the narratives divide is the moment when America realizes the Soviets have nuclear weapons; the division in the story reflects the pivotal dividing of political balance in world history. The backward chronology creates the sense of digging into the cultural trash pile of history, while the forward motion of the ball's movement in time suggests a recycling of culture. In this dual history, DeLillo celebrates post-Cold War Post-Modernism in his view of history as "recycled," and by his allusions to works by Post Modern writers like Pynchon, Heller and Reed.

DeLillo establishes the World Series game and the winning ball as symbols for the Cold War era; He draws parallels between baseball and nuclear devices, like the fact that the radioactive core of a nuclear bomb is the same size as a baseball. He shows presidents posed with baseball heros, who vie with world leaders as enduring cultural forces. He makes associations between the Series game and the novel's structure; a collector of baseball memorabilia who hoped to identify the ball's first owner by looking at pictures from the Polo Grounds says, "I looked at a million photographs because this is the dot theory of reality, that all knowledge is available if you analyze the dots." In Underworld, the dots are individual stories that resolve into a history of an era.

Nick, Klara and the winning ball are characters whose stories represent different perspectives and historical movements; but the novel is also populated by a nuns, nuclear weapons designers, memorabilia collectors, a child chess prodigy, heroin users, Bronx punks, organized crime figures, graffiti artists, wife-swappers, a soldier who observed an atomic test, and a serial killer. These characters expound on the Soviets, art, garbage, self-control, love, and history, among other things. They are all in the predicament of a baseball announcer who cannot see the game he is reporting--they must invent their own details to make a story out of the raw facts. They do this by watching films, spinning conspiracy theories (most memorably about Gorbachev's birthmark and Greenland's existence), searching for numerological patterns, putting faith in God, and choosing what they will believe about their individual and collective pasts. Personal observations play a dominant role in this novel, and even the celebrities make them: Jackie Gleason makes jokes about the foibles of his audience, Lenny Bruce makes deadly quips during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and J. Edgar Hoover makes history by observing the clandestine activites of his fellow Americans.

Although garbage figures prominently in Nick's and Klara's careers, it infiltrates every part of the story. Nuns help the homeless in a Bronx junkyard, paper scraps fall on Branca and Thomson as they face off in the Series; we witness garbage strikes, junkies, nuclear waste, and a garbarge scow that no nation will accept adrift at sea. Yet DeLillo suggests that garbage is what we make of it; he even the suggests that nuclear bombs might be recycled, and put to positive use. We can see the detritus of our lives as trash which will eventually bury us, or as ingredients out of which we can make new lives.

Copyright © 1997
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