Underworld by Don De Lillo
This book was a big deal when it was first published in 1997. I can remember my then boss being very excited that she was going to have the whole of the Christmas holidays to immerse herself in it. Trusting her taste, I added it to my TBR list and couldn’t believe my luck when I found it for a knockdown price in one of those wonderful remainder bookshops that used to pop up short term in the vacant premises of shopping centres.
I brought home my prize and set it proudly on my bookcase. It radiated promise; it was weighty in every sense of the word and I waited impatiently until the frivolities of the Festive Season had been dispensed with and I could approach the work with the seriousness of mind it quite clearly merited.
I managed about 60 of its 827 pages before I put it back and picked up a Chandler instead, and it stayed untouched on the shelf for seventeen years.
I was reminded of it, and its reputation, when we were recently sorting out a box of books to go to Oxfam and I felt a pang of guilt; I really ought to have read it by now. So I did.
It is a book about life in the second half of the 20th century. Or, more accurately, life in the US in the second half of the 20th century. It opens in 1951 with a detailed account of an historic baseball game between the Giants and the Dodgers, when the final ball of the final inning was hit into the stands for a home run, and the Giants won the pennant. Whatever that is. If, like me, you are ignorant of the finer points of baseball leagues, match structure, tactics and rules, and if, also like me, you couldn’t care less, this extended section may as well be written in Mandarin. You can quite safely skip to its climax, which occurs when the actual ball is snatched by a young African-American boy who has truanted to sneak into the ground. This artefact is the McGuffin that kickstarts the rest of what, for want of a better word, I’ll call the plot.
In popular imagination, nothing says ’50s America like a baseball game, but having evoked this mom’s apple pie and cream soda atmosphere, the author undermines it mercilessly when the child’s feckless father steals the ball from him to try and make a quick profit by selling it on. From here we jump cut to 1992, and so DeLillo establishes his method, which is essentially to move backwards through the decades, retro-engineering the sordid underworld pulsing below the technological and cultural advances of the 20th century and showing us, in effect, how we got here from there.
He does this by presenting a huge cast of characters in a series of sharply-realised vignettes, whose strength lies in the author’s wonderful ear for dialogue. You hear the vibrant music of natural speech in every exchange.
The nearest we have to a protagonist is Nick Shay, whom we see, in a series of self-contained and sometimes fragmentary clips, move from troubled adolescence to troubled adulthood. Despite showing early promise, he drops out of school and, following a couple of jobs as a manual labourer, into a correctional facility for killing a man. Here he has some sort of epiphany and subsequently becomes a classics teacher and eventually an executive in a private garbage disposal company as well as being the ultimate owner of the errant baseball. The narrative ebbs and flows into episodes in the lives of people Nick has come into contact with: his family, his teachers, his colleagues, his friends, and the often tangential links between these characters provide the energy that moves the book onward. The overall effect is rather like watching laundry in a washing machine. Characters swirl restlessly, struggling to the surface and tangling briefly with others before sinking back to the bottom of the drum when the churning momentarily stops. We revisit some of them in earlier (or later) decades and see how they’ve turned out. It is no spoiler to say this is generally badly.
For this is a very grim book. The shadow of the cold war in general and The Bomb in particular hangs heavily over it, and there is little respite from misery in its 800-plus pages. Characters are by and large disillusioned and disappointed. The old neighbourhood has gone to rack and ruin, and weed-filled empty lots, where businesses and families once thrived, now provide only haunts for the dispossessed, junkies and muggers. All husbands are cuckolds, all wives desperate and unfulfilled, all children are abandoned, figuratively if not literally. The twelve year-old girl who is raped and murdered not far from her home in a burned-out car is essentially no different from Nick’s son, who spends most of his waking hours in a murky online world, uncommunicative and unseen. Fathers are absent, either because, like Nick’s, they have run from their responsibilities or because, like Charles Wainwright, the first purchaser of the ball, they don’t have the empathy to talk to their sons. The implication is that there has been no-one to provide the moral compass that will enable bewildered boys to become responsible men and that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in. Teachers, including the humane Albert Bronzini and the terrifying Sister Edgar, are as flawed as any of the others in their personal lives, striving in vain against pervasive ignorance and social inequality, while privately mourning their own lack of effectiveness.
Threaded through this fictional tapestry are representations of real figures but they are no more positive. At the ballgame, Sinatra is vain and sneering, Jackie Gleason a pitiable figure courting popular approval to shore up his fragile ego and drinking too much. J Edgar Hoover, attending Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, appears in his little leather mask to be a tortured soul suppressing his own sexuality but fooling noone. Lenny Bruce’s fractured routines feed off his own jittery paranoia about the Cuban missile crisis.
And piling up, silently but irrevocably, is the symbolic detritus of first world post-war consumerism, the garbage that Nick’s company has to deal with. There is too much for us to dispose of or to bury, and in one of the book’s final chapters we are shown that destroying it in a controlled underground nuclear explosion is a possible solution. The demonstration of this strategy occurs in Kazakhstan. This, dear reader, is where we came in, for the day of the historic baseball game was also the date of the first Soviet nuclear test.
Underworld has been lauded by such eminent authors as Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje and Julian Barnes as a masterpiece. It is undoubtedly a staggering achievement and a worthy meditation on a significant period in modern history, but it’s also harrowing and not a little scary. Anyone under the age of sixty who embarks on it could be forgiven for thinking that the sixties and seventies were times of unremitting gloom and despair and maybe, for intellectuals and academics, they were. But viewed with our 21st century sensibilities, it has the distanced, almost quaint atmosphere of someone else’s story.
In our age, there is a plethora of enemies both within and without. Rarely a news day goes by without some fresh threat to our economic, environmental or political security being identified. We are now less concerned about the consequences of a single bomb being detonated than we are about the nagging anxiety of serial global terrorism. Nevertheless, the central premise of Underworld, that we are as much under threat from our own irresponsibility as we are from outside forces, is no less relevant today than it was when the book was written, or indeed when it was set, and we would do well to find the seriousness of mind to give it proper consideration.