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Between Hell and History

Underworld

by Don DeLillo
Scribner, 827 pp., $27.50

Underworld is the title of the archetypal first gangster movie(written by Ben Hecht and directed in 1927 by Josef von Sternberg), from which so many conventions of plot and lighting and characterization and incidental business still employed today directly descend. The term “underworld” now carries the title’s sense—that of gangland, of a separate criminal sphere existing just under the skin of ordinary life—almost exclusively, so that its original metaphorical connotation has been nearly lost. But then, far fewer people believe in a literal hell anymore.

The movie Don DeLillo refers to in his panoramic novel, however, is Unterwelt, the product of Sergei Eisenstein’s period of exile in Berlin in the 1930s. Long thought lost or maybe apocryphal, this film, or a portion of it, is restored and shown in a gala presentation at Radio City Music Hall in 1974. The audience, composed of period hipsters, is agog at the hall, its murals, its lavatories. The orchestra appears and its platform is mechanically lowered into the pit, a procedure greeted with cheers. The Rockettes come out in West Point gray with plumed dress hats and bondage collars—speculation runs through the theater that they are actually a troupe of female impersonators. Then the film begins, haltingly. It is dark and oddly, for the 1930s, silent. In some underground complex a mad scientist fires an atomic ray gun at a deformed victim, “who begins to glow in the dark, jerking and dancing and then looking rather wanly at his arm, which starts to melt away.” There does not appear to be a plot, just more and more of the same. After intermission the film resumes with an escape scene, accompanied by a Prokofiev march camped up by the theater’s Wurlitzer organ. But then the scene shifts to “a landscape shocked by light, pervasive and overexposed,” with “many long shots, sky and plain, intercut with foreground figures, their heads and torsos crowding out the landscape.” Out in the open, the victims of the previous scenes now seem startlingly human, not Eisenstein’s habitual social types, but individuals freed from class strictures perversely enough by mutilation. “You could feel a sense of character emerge…a life inside the eyes, a textured set of experiences.” The escapees are recaptured; the footage breaks off.

The film, unlike anything Eisenstein is actually known to have made, seems peculiarly plausible—maybe your imagination, prompted by DeLillo, devises its own montage of fragments from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Dr. Mabuse, intercut with landscapes from Que Viva Mexico. Certainly the circumstances of its showing are exactly true to the period, the meeting of camp dazzle and countercultural scholarship that fleetingly took place in the 1970s. As a historical novelist, DeLillo is pitch-perfect, evoking times and places with deft, minimal strokes. The scene may at first appear gratuitous, an invention for its own sake, but it is far from idle. As Klara Sax, an artist, watches the ending, she muses:

All Eisenstein wants you to see, in the end, are the contradictions of being. You look at the faces on the screen and you see the mutilated yearning, the inner divisions of people and systems, and how forces will clash and fasten, compelling the swerve from evenness that marks a thing lastingly.

That might serve as a mission statement for the novel. The imaginary movie, meanwhile, provides one of its many sidelong glimpses of hell.

The title’s sense is at least double: in addition to that infernal connotation, there is also the suggestion of life taking place in the shadows, not outside convention but beneath history. But then hell and history overlap in the book; both are determined by nuclear weaponry. Bomb novels aren’t very fashionable these days, unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when they were issued in batches, either Countdown to Apocalypse or Wanderers in a Blasted Landscape. Underworld, however, is a bomb novel in the sense that it is a novel of modern history: the bomb sits, just offstage, throughout. All consciousness includes knowledge of the bomb; every decision is somehow informed by the presence of the bomb; every action occurs within the shadow of the bomb.

The book’s historical range is as sweeping as its bulk suggests, from 1951 to some not quite definite present day, which might be right now or might lie a few years hence. Between those two points, the chronology runs backward; successive clumps of narrative are terraced in stages from 1992 back to 1951. As in many bomb novels, the time-line begins with an event that can be retrospectively seen as marking the division between edenic and fallen worlds. That convention of bomb novels—nuclear fission as forbidden fruit—is implicit here; the symbolic fall is not explicitly tied to Hiroshima or Los Alamos in 1945. The event depicted in the opening set piece is, rather, what might have been the last innocent expression of community: the 1951 pennant-race game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers decided at the last minute by Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ‘round the world” home run.

This episode, published in Harper’s several years ago as “Pafko at the Wall,” is a tour de force of cinematic writing—not text that is camera-ready (as is practiced by too many writers these days), but that challenges the movies at their own game. It zooms, dollies, tracks, cuts from close-ups to long shots and back, assembles thousands of bits of visual and auditory information into a montage that spectacularly renders the entire experience. Not for nothing does DeLillo evoke Eisenstein. His montage, though, made of words, can move on several tracks at once. He can not only deliver the effect of single shots spliced together using simple sentences (“A man slowly wiping his glasses. A staring man. A man flexing the stiffness out of his limbs”), and that of watching a ball game on television by sequencing the radio announcer’s comments antiphonally between crowd scenes and darting views of players in the outfield, he can also cut suddenly into and out of various viewpoints—four of them, although the effect is multitudinous. We enter and leave the game with Cotter Martin, skipping school for the day to sneak into the Polo Grounds, and make rapid visits to Willie Mays’s inability to shake a radio jingle, the announcer Russ Hodges’s oncoming cold and drift of memories, and the assortment of observations and emotions that succeed each other in J. Edgar Hoover’s mind.

Hoover is attending the game as the unlikely fourth member of a group also composed of Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and Toots Shor. They really were all there together, as DeLillo has noted in interviews. The significance of the game in both baseball history and New York City folklore—the most dramatic event of the numerous subway series that took place in the 1940s and 1950s, when the city still had three teams and distinct neighborhoods to support them—was buttressed in DeLillo’s mind, he has also said, by a coincidence: the report of the game in The New York Times was balanced across the page by another story with a headline the same size, an account of a Soviet nuclear test in Kazakhstan. Hoover receives word of this test from an agent during the game. People throw paper from the stands in the final innings, including, page by page, an entire issue of Life; a page that falls on Hoover’s shoulder reproduces half of Brueghel’s Triumph of Death.

After Thomson’s homer the ball rolls through the stands as people scramble for it. Cotter Martin snatches it and takes it home to his family’s Harlem apartment. He makes the mistake of telling his father about it, though, and the father, Manx Martin, who is unemployed and always looking for an angle, takes the ball up to Yankee Stadium to sell it to someone in the line of those waiting to buy World Series tickets. Thus the ball begins to roll through the book as a sort of Grail, one of those migratory objects that are part character and part leitmotif, like the overcoat in Gogol’s The Overcoat and in Julien Duvivier’s 1942 film Tales of Manhattan. Here, though, we’re never exactly sure what happens to the ball. It may have been bought by a father for his son, who became a post-Vietnam drifter and may have resold it to a memorabilia fanatic, who may in turn have sold it to Nick Shay, our protagonist. By the time he buys it, though, it is by no means certain that it is still the same ball, although it does bear that apparently convincing smear of green paint from when it hit the foul post.

His purchase has a rueful irony about it: on October 3, 1951, he was a teenager in the Bronx listening to the game on the radio and secretly rooting for the losing Dodgers. The game for him has a significance not unlike the one it has for the novel as a whole—the following day he killed a man, for not much of a reason, and thereafter spent years in various juvenile institutions. In the historical present he has become an executive of a waste management company, and lives in Arizona. He and the other major characters are linked by events in the pre-game, pre-threat past, and do not much intersect subsequently. He had an affair with Klara Sax when he was delivering cases of soda to groceries and she was a neighborhood wife, older than him and restless; now she is a world-famous artist. Her then husband, Albert Bronzini, was a science teacher; now he is retired, a flâneur and maybe a sort of minor saint. He was also chess tutor to Nick’s brother, Matt, who looked like a prodigy at the time; he is now a physicist, and in the 1970s worked at nuclear bases in the New Mexico desert. Sister Edgar, who taught both brothers at the local parochial school, is still there in the Bronx, as ancient now as she then seemed.

The minor characters, all of them vivid, number in the dozens. Their connections with the major figures are seldom direct; sometimes the links are entirely metaphorical. Even aside from its chronological scheme, which succeeds in moving simultaneously forward from October 3, 1951, to the present and backward to the following day, the novel’s organization might be said to be horizontal. Like the migration from viewpoint to viewpoint at the fateful game, like the ball’s migration from owner to owner in the subsequent decades, the narrative moves laterally from scene to scene, life to life, against the steady undertow of time.

The book’s Part Two, for example, which is identified as set between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s, begins with a description of a videotape that has come to occupy the airwaves: recorded by a child from the back of a car, it shows a man in another car driving along, waving at the camera, when suddenly he slumps—he has been shot from alongside by an unknown assailant, a serial murderer who has become known as the Texas Highway Killer. The video keeps playing on TV screens in the scenes that follow, which are not necessarily connected one with the next, moving from Nick’s wife, Marian, to his colleague Brian Glassic, to the baseball-memorabilia fetishist, Marvin Lundy, to Nick, to Matt, to Bronzini, to Sister Edgar, to Marian and Brian, beginning an affair—and then suddenly we are with a character who comes out of nowhere. He is someplace semirural, seems idle, exudes some kind of nameless anomie; the scene appears to be drifting away from the book. And then we suddenly realize that he is the Texas Highway Killer, in person. The effect is electrifying; the narrative in that instant seems to own the world.

This promise is met in Part Five, which travels from point to point in time and place during the 1950s and 1960s. Alternating with scenes of Nick’s life, from reformatory to courtship, are public and private incidents, the latter from the lives of peripheral characters, such as the father and son who may have bought the ball outside Yankee Stadium. The public moments include views of a civil rights march in the South in 1964 (seen through the eyes of Cotter Martin’s sister), a two-part account of Hoover’s and Clyde Tolson’s appearance at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966, and renditions of a series of club dates around the country by Lenny Bruce in 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The latter scenes have a particular documentary exactness about them, or appear to. As in the ball game prologue, the narrative homes in on individual points of view like a telepathic police radio, but with such apparent casualness that the split-second soliloquies just register as crowd noise in the room:

There was a Latin band in the lounge doing mambos and cha-chas and a number of Long Island sexpots were here, looking for second husbands. They traveled in pairs or with a sister, even, like a hunter and her gun bearer, one divorced, one single—dating an orthopedist here and an iffy sort of businessman there. Says he’s an executive in the hotel linen supply business? But when I call on him on the phone? I have to ask for Marty? And his name is Fred?

Lenny Bruce’s voice and the drift of his routines are so convincingly rendered I was almost persuaded that DeLillo had relied on transcripts or recordings—but then he is current fiction’s most astounding ventriloquist, as anyone will attest who has read Libra and appreciated his hyperrealist conjuring of Marguerite Oswald in particular. Bruce, of course, is obsessed with the imminent nuclear war: “We’re all gonna die!” he screams, his coat over his head, at Basin Street West in San Francisco and Mister Kelly’s in Chicago and the Waves in Miami Beach, between routines:

…and in the movie version it’s Rod Steiger playing Khrushchev as an Actors’ Studio chief of state. Dig it, he’s deep, he’s misunderstood, he’s got the accent down pat, the shaved head, he does the screaming fits, he does the motivation—lonely boy from the coal pits ruthlessly fights his way to the top but all he’s really looking for is a wisecracking dame who’ll give him some back talk and make him laugh once in a while…. We see his tender feminine side when he has an affair in a coat closet with an American double agent played by Kim Novak in a butch haircut.

These scenes have a cumulative effect that is the complex literary equivalent of a process shot—like the leaves of a calendar flipping rapidly or streaks criss-crossing a map and lighting up dots indicating cities. They convey the motion of time and the migration of facts between public and private spheres that create what we retrospectively name history. Bruce is a perfect foil for DeLillo here because his shtick involved among other things an ongoing demonstration of how news is at once reality and artifice—he could articulate the half-formed thoughts of his audience (“We’re all gonna die!“) and then turn around and look at the same business from far away, maybe the future. In its rapid swerve from immediacy to distance, Bruce’s improvisatory genius—DeLillo is particularly brilliant at showing how Bruce made up his routines as he went along, stumbling and lurching and then seizing a riff and running with it—was mimicking how history is built.

For DeLillo, though, history is more than just a narrative. The book’s third paragraph begins, “Longing on a vast scale is what makes history.” In Libra he showed Lee Harvey Oswald walking through an empty Dallas Sunday afternoon:

He felt the loneliness he always hated to admit to, a vaster isolation than Russia, stranger dreams, a dead white glare burning down. He wanted to carry himself with a clear sense of role, make a move one time that was not disappointed. He walked in the shadows of insurance towers and bank buildings. He thought the only end to isolation was to reach the point where he was no longer separated from the true struggles that went on around him. The name we give this point is history.

Here he enters the mind of Hoover, just after he has received word of the Soviet nuclear test:

Edgar looks at the faces around him, open and hopeful. He wants to feel a compatriot’s nearness and affinity. All these people formed by language and climate and popular songs and breakfast foods and the jokes they tell and the cars they drive have never had anything in common so much as this, that they are sitting in the furrow of destruction. He tries to feel a belonging, an opening of his old stop-cocked soul.

History is a connective tissue, or the dream of one, a name for life outside oneself, for that which connects all human beings except the subjective observer, a narrative that even though it takes up the whole world can only be seen from a distance. The bomb is a challenge to this notion, because while it manifestly is history, a cause and effect and article of history, it also invades internal life, not as a consequence of altering external life the way ordinary war does, but by its potential to do so, sheathed but omnipresent. The bomb, undetonated, makes history within the psyche.

So it is that those characters whose physical interaction is long past, or possibly never took place at all, are nevertheless connected by this historical ectoplasm. This can manifest itself in tiny and subtle or in broad and physical ways: Matt’s career as a nuclear physicist or Klara’s vast artwork on a canvas made up of decommissioned bombers arrayed in the desert. Sometimes, actually, the manifestations are altogether too broad for the book’s own good. DeLillo, who has never been afraid of large metaphors, launches a few here that threaten to topple over. Nick’s field is waste management, which metaphorically takes care both of his post-homicide, post-Bronx atonement in the desert, and of what occupies the post-bomb world, in the form of nuclear waste. However casually deployed, though, the subject of garbage would all by itself set off alarms in anyone’s subtext detector. Here, in addition, it works altogether too symmetrically, and may give the misleading impression that the rest of the work is similarly programmatic. This is especially unfortunate in a book that hostile critics (and at least one seemingly approving reviewer) have depicted as a project somehow aimed at achieving greatness by force of will.

But the risk comes with the territory. DeLillo works with enormous canvases and even larger themes. Private though he may be as a personality, he is a public artist, immediate and declarative and passionate about the state of the country and the world. In various interviews as well as in his last novel, Mao II, he has said that the writer’s task amounts to, in the current phrase, speaking truth to power. As far back as The Names (1982), he had a character say, “If I were a writer… how I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating, to work in the margins, outside a central perception. You are the ghoul of literature. Lovely.” This sentiment may at first sound antithetical to the role of a public artist, but serious literature’s marginality does have the privilege of rendering it immune to the kind of a priori censorship that prevails in, say, the movies. It is, however, subject to censorship by neglect, by burial in the marketplace, and a way to counteract that is by working on a large scale.

DeLillo, then, may have to print some of his themes in ten-foot letters on billboards so that nobody can miss them. He would not be the first great writer to do so. But neither is this his sole strategy, nor is Underworld a decorated thesis, constructed of themes in various dimensions. It is a kind of world unto itself, for all its bearing on the one we inhabit, and it is composed of a vast accretion of small details. There are beautiful little throwaways, for example the evergreen romance between Marvin Lundy, who speaks in Yiddish inflections, and his English war bride, who supplies on request the words he can’t bring to mind, which would be enough for a freestanding work by any number of other writers.

In that subplot as elsewhere, DeLillo balances the characters’ perfectly observed idiomatic speech with his own laconic, rough-edged brushstroke of a voice, and when he is attributing thoughts to those characters manages somehow to frame them in a style that glides between their voices and his. The documentary quality of his writing is on display on every page, and constantly pleasing not merely for the licked-finish illusionism with which he reproduces speech, or the camera eye he brings to bear on diverse contexts (a swingers’ convention at a Southern California resort, a Harlem bar in 1951, a drug party held by bomb researchers, a navigation cubicle in a B-52), but for the ways in which the renditions of those things will depart from the known or expected. Large thematic strokes may define his architecture, but within lies continual surprise at the fluidity and resilience of the human condition. All he wants you to see, in the end, are the contradictions.

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