Underworld: An American Masterpiece

To be honest, I’m not sure I’m up to this task. But it’s been forced on me. I’ve had a vision. And like most prophets fresh back from desert revelations, I’ve been incapacitated by what I’ve seen. I will likely babble and ramble, murmur and ululate.

Don Delillo

But here’s the thing: Underworld, by Don Delillo, is an American masterpiece. It is on par with Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and The Adventures of Augie March. Of that last work, Martin Amis said, peremptorily, that it ended the quest for the Great American Novel; the search could be called off. Strong words, from a literary genius no less. Am I proposing a challenger?

Not really. Do you remember a college professor who could duck any question by reframing it? Maddening, but that’s what I’m going to do now. If you look at the competitors for the title of the Great American Novel, they all speak truths of fundamental human importance, but from the time-bound perspective of American history.  Each one has its epoch.

Huckleberry Finn explores the human condition of freedom-seeking from a perspective that could have only arisen in late antebellum America. Gatsby ponders why the good life could not necessarily be pried from the great life of the Roaring Twenties. Augie March diagnoses the vertigo America felt as mass immigration created the world’s greatest-ever experiment in personal identity choice. A whole country drunk and dizzy with Nietzsche’s terrible freedom to choose. Come to think of it, Augie was a sort of counterpoint to Huckleberry Finn.

And so there is no Great American Novel, as such, only great novels born of our epochal upheavals that say something new and pungent about what Gore vidal called the “fact of being human.”

Which brings me back to my task at hand, Underworld. It opens with an extended cinematic scene of jarring contrasts, whirling colors, historical events and death hovering above all. It is October 3rd, 1951, and a truant kid from the Bronx is jumping the gate to get into the Polo Grounds, “an old rust hulk of a structure, . . . [a] metropolis of steel and concrete and flaky paint and cropped grass and enormous Chesterfield packs aslant on the scorebords.”

A great novel must project epic proportions from local details; it must see into the depths of humanity’s inner being, but through the particulars of individual characters. Many novelists mince their way toward these challenges. Some, like Henry James, do so with coreographed delicacy. Delillo leads with the right cross. Here is the scene, mental and physical, as the truant takes a running leap and the crowd pours into the stadium to watch the come-from-behind underdogs, the New York Giants, play the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant in 1951:

“Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning, but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous, thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day—men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts, going to a game. The sky is low and gray, the roily gray of sliding surf.”

For 60 dense pages, Delillo spins this omniscient commentary on human longing. It is a profound but antic meditation on the kaleidoscope of American passions and loyalties. And by the end of the chapter, we find Delillo has actually undersold the action: there is a “vast shaking of the soul” going on. Giants third baseman Bobby Thomson hits his famous three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth, winning the pennant for the underdogs and catapulting the Giants-Dodgers cross-town rivalry into worldwide fame. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, in town to watch the game, furtively takes a message that the Russians have just exploded their first nuclear bomb at a test site in Kazakhstan. Jackie Gleason, glistening with sweat and overfilled to tautness with hotdogs and beer, pukes violently on Frank Sinatra’s shoes. Paper scrap in all forms rains down as the crowd reaches for any means available to hail the Giants‘ wild victory. A magazine page alighting on Hoover’s head entrances the FBI chief. It is an offprint of Bruegels‘ painting, “The Triumph of Death,” which catalogues the variegated ways death’s agents carry mortals off the field of life, tearing us away from our defining passions and fleeting pleasures even as we pursue them.

And that truant who jumped the turnstile? He snatched the ball that Thomson hit out of the park. The ball will become the focal point of the novel as it is passed down from one character to another and ends up a holy relic on the shelf of Nick Shay, the story’s main character.

What is Underworld about? It is about America’s post-World War Two journey from the ecstatic to the mundane. It is about the bookends of the opening scene, dense with magic, the so-called Shot Heard Round the World, and the vague anomie of anyman Nick Shay at the close of the novel in the dissipated 1990s, educated, cuckolded, recovered, moved to Arizona, doesn’t even watch baseball anymore. Most of all, it is about “the unseen something that haunts the day,” as Delillo put it in the passage quoted above—the invisible connections that link nobodies one to another and to famous people and to to the spirit of their time. And to the defining horizon of death.

Nick is a rough boy, Catholic, lower middle class from the Bronx. When he is 17 he shoots and kills an acqaintance. It is a bizarre accident, in which the victim, Delillo hints, may have been courting death as an escape from creeping meaninglessness. Shay spends his rehabilitation among Jesuits in Minnesota. He learns Latin and an appreciation for minute, atomistic facts. He becomes a school teacher. Later, offscene, he marries and becomes an executive in waste disposal. His specialty is bomb waste.

But the reader must assemble Nick’s story, along with the rest of Delillo‘s sprawling plot, from scenes shattered jaggedly out of temporal sequence. From the opening scene, which is an indelible part of the 1950s, we jump to 1992, in which Nick re-unites with an old lover from the Bronx. She’s in the New Mexico desert now, turning derelict bombers into art. One of the bombers reappears, hundreds of pages later, in a bomb run over Viet Nam in 1969. Its targets have been chosen, we learn, based on the analysis of aerial photography by Nick’s brother Matt, in a basement somewhere behind the front line. Later, Matt will become a weapons designer; he will mention to Nick that the core of an atom bomb is the size of a baseball. A connection that occurs below all our thresholds.

If the novel’s connections are muted, that is because Delillo uses a vast network of symbols and metaphors to argue that American consciousness was driven underground by the threat of nuclear extinction from the 1950s onward. It was not just the bomb test sites, the nuclear command posts, missile silos, and toxic waste dumps that went subterranean. Our entire lives did. The Cold War was an era in which it became natural to wish to live inside, underground.

A case in point: After the Giants win in the opening scene, Delillo ruminates on the public celebration that followed, men coming down from the rooftops where they had listened to the game on transistor radios, people clapping their cheap lawnchairs and flooding the streets to join the spectacle. The game, we learn, was the first one ever televised nationwide. Although a raucous public pageant, it also heralded the death of a certain kind of communal instinct. As TVs began to turn on, Americans stayed home, where they could tune in and tune out. Nick’s friend and colleague comments, in the 1980s:

“‘When JFK was shot, people went inside. We watched TV in dark rooms and talked on the phone with friends and relatives. We were all separate and alone. But when Thomson hit the homer, people rushed outside. People wanted to be together. Maybe it was the last time people spontaneously went out of their houses for something.”

By the time Shay is living in Arizona 40 years later, no one goes outside. Everyone stays in to avoid the sun’s radiation.

Atoms are not the only particles that bewitch Delillo. The novel’s pivot is a section called “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry.” In it, Delillo interweaves a retelling of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Lenny Bruce with an anthem to the chemical acceleration of America’s overpowering consumer drive. At the same time Americans feared the rain of nuclear death particles from above, we were lulled and sated by the compensations of TV dinners, Saran Wrap, lawn fertilizer and Valium. A minor character does “things with Jell-O that took people’s breath away.” Her husband, “out in the breezeway, . . . was simonizing their two-tone Ford Fairlane.” All things quotidian were getting better. They were also changing us, as chemicals do, by means of invisible processes, things happening unnoticed, under our skin.

Meanwhile Lenny Bruce guides the perplexed through the missile crisis in real time; he is on tour as events unfold. Although his complex, beat-poet riffs on geopolitics are surprisingly insightful for a junkie, his go-to line, which keeps the crowds in thrall, is a simple, high-pitched, “We’re all going to die.” Death is triumphant, as Breugel and Delillo’s opening scene, and now Bruce’s schtick remind us.

In the end, as we know, the missile crisis was resolved. But America’s consumerism reached escape velocity and became fixed in our stars. By the time Underworld‘s plot reaches the 1990s we cannot even see that the human hopes and desires that are supposed to define us have been colonized by commercial brands. This loss of personal integrity is, like so many things in Delillo’s novel, something that happened in the underworld, below our consicous threshold—a national tragedy we didn’t even see coming because our faces were turned upward with fear.

In what is arguably the best novel of the twentieth century, The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann situates his hero, Hans Castorp in a Swiss tuberculosis sanitarium high in the mountains. Entranced by the quiet allure of the contemplative life, Castorp stays for seven years, reflecting on everything from the fabric of time to the fragile balance of military power among Europe’s rival nations. In the rarified mountain air, Castorp is slowly sapped of raw humanity, even rendered unable to flirt with the pretty girl who likes him. At the novel’s famous and abrupt end, Castorp leaves the sanitarium—escapes, we almost feel—and charges into the trenches of World War One. The closing scene is his war face. Seven years of quiet contemplation, and then a face agape with rage.

And now, to my main claim: Delillo has, whether he intended it or not, written the American Magic Mountain, a novel of epochal lineaments and searing insight. At the close of Mann’s novel, Europe is on the verge of war, and it is about to lose, big time. Its civilization—the most advanced on earth—will very nearly destroy itself. The cataclysmic extent of the moral and physical ruin of Eruope‘s two wars need not be recounted. For a novelist, they were the action that defined the century.

At the close of Underworld, in a reversal of Mann’s political tableau, America has won the Cold War. An open-ended peace is at hand. So what of Nick Shay, our modern-day Hans Castorp, on the cusp of this new era? He has, in American parlance, achieved closure. Over the years retold in Underworld, he reformed from his youthful rough days on the streets of the Bronx, left behind his senseless homicide, married, learned to love his child in ways that seemed impossible at first, overcame the betrayal of his wife’s affair. He has a personal library in the den, which he habitually straightens and reorganizes.

Oh, yes, and he owns the ball that Bobby Thomson hit out of the park in 1951, on the last day when Americans went outside to be together. What does Delillo report of Shay, at this juncture where no war looms to summon his rage, and, anyway, he is almost retired in Arizona and all his loose ends have been tied up?


“I long for the days of disorder. I want them back, the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real. This is what I long for, the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked the streets and did things slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself.”

This is a man who knows exactly where death’s sting is, how its triumph discloses itself. He is haunted not just by his own death, but the extinction of a kind of life his countrymen once had and which now seems to have been taken from us by a billion unseen choices and chemical reactions. No one goes quietly into a twilight kind of life—what Walker Percy called death-in-life—least of all a novelist. And so Nick Shay closes his story, like Hans Castorp, baring his war face at the sordidness of peace. Like Castorp’s, his contortion of rage is an omen of violence to come, and of whole nations that will be redefined by it. And as Günter Grass observed of the cycle of violence and grieving that defines nations: “It doesn’t end. Never will it end.”




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