The New York Times
A decade after 9/11, it's worth rereading Don DeLillo's 1997 masterpiece, "Underworld," to appreciate how uncannily the author not only captured the surreal weirdness of life in the second half of the 20th century but also anticipated America's lurch into the terror and exigencies of the new millennium.
The novel, whose original cover, unnervingly, features an image of the World Trade Center towers surrounded by fog and looming over a small church, focuses on the cold war years. But its portrait of life under the shadow of the atomic bomb — this thing "they had brought" into the world that "out-imagined the mind" — is immediately recognizable. As he did so astutely in earlier novels, Mr. DeLillo depicts an America in thrall to celebrity, technology and the mass media, a country afflicted with paranoia and confusion, a country in which there are no limits to the power of money, and "violence is easier now, it's uprooted, out of control, it has no measure anymore."
Though "Underworld" pivots around the experiences of one Nick Shay, a hero who shares his creator's Bronx childhood and Roman Catholic upbringing, it unfolds into a panoramic portrait of America, charting the intersecting lives of dozens of characters, famous and obscure — baseball fans and conspiracy fanatics, hustlers, con men, businessmen, scientists and artists. The novel moves from the streets of New York to the suburbs to the New Mexico desert, cutting back and forth from the 1950s to the 1990s, and in doing so gives us a visceral sense of how private lives and public events, the personal and the collective, can converge, with explosive force.
Readers put off by the novel's 800-plus page length should sample its prologue: a breathtaking 50-odd-page set piece that seamlessly captures the experience of 35,000 people watching the famous ballgame of Oct. 3, 1951, in which the Giants beat the Dodgers to win the pennant race — a game that happened to take place on the very same day that America learned that the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb, and the cold war took a deadly new turn. This prologue is such a bravura display of Mr. DeLillo's literary powers, odds are the reader will be propelled through the rest of this dazzling and prescient novel. --(Michiko Kakutani)
Newsweek - Malcolm Jones
"There's pleasure on evey page of this pitch-perfect evocation of a half-century."
The Baltimore Sun - Joan Mellen
"Underworld is a page-turner and a masterwork, a sublime novel and a delight to read."
The Seattle Times - Greg Burkman
"Masterpieces teach you how to read them, and Underworld is no exception....Anastonishing piece of prose and a benchmark of twentieth-century fiction, Underworld is stunnigly beautiful in its generous humanity, locating the true power of history not in tyranny, collective political movements of history books, but inside each of us."
"Underworld is magnificent book by an American master."
"The book is an aria and a wolf-whistle of our half century. It contains multitudes."
The New York Times Michiko Kakutani
Underworld is a “dazzling and prescient novel…A decade after 9/11, it’s worth rereading Don DeLillo’s 1997 masterpiece to appreciate how uncannily the author not only captured the surreal weirdness of life in the second half of the 20th century but also anticipated America’s lurch into the terror and exigencies of the new millennium...A breathtaking set piece…the prologue is a bravura display of Mr. DeLillo's literary powers."
The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review David Wiegand
“His best novel and perhaps that most elusive of creatures, a great American novel . . . . a masterpiece in which the depth and reach of the commonplace are invested with universal scope and grandeur. Underworld is also a thrilling page-turner, propelling us along with realistic characters and those compelling details that make it impossible for them—or us—to escape the past.”
London Observer William Boyd
“In Underworld, we have a mature and hugely accomplished novelist firing on all cylinders, at the sophisticated height of his multifarious powers. Reading the book is a charged and thrilling aesthetic experience and one remembers gratefully that this is what the novel can do, and indeed does, better than any other art form—it gets the human condition, it skewers and fixes it in all its richness and squalor unlike anything else. The novel is the ‘great book of life’ and as long as there are human beings who are readers it will survive and, with a little luck,even flourish. Don DeLillo’s Underworld is a formidably potent and hugely encouraging testimonial to this undeniable,indomitable and strangely consoling fact.”
Harper’s Vince Passaro
“The most personal and contemplative of DeLillo’s novels . . . Underworld confirms that contemporary American fiction’s most promising movement involves novels on a large social and historical scale that stretch the norms of narrative and language.”
The New York Times Book Review Martin Amis
“Underworld surges with magisterial confidence through time and through space.”
New York Observer Adam Begley
“This novel will make you feel lucky to be alive and reading.”
The Nation John Leonard
“Magnificent . . . a miracle.”
The Atlantic Monthly Tom LeClair
“Courageous, ingenious and demanding, Underworld is a book to be talked about . . . for years to come.”
“Underworld’s intellect, its view, its fabulous drama, its soul, its passion and compassion, and the beauty of the writing, just the size and generosity of it, are all of some spectacular high order. I can’t imagine any writer reading it without complete admiration and a kind of gratitude, because if a book like that can be written in a culture like this, it’s terrific for all of us.”
The New York Review of Books Luc Sante
“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, but for the ways in which the renditions of those things will depart from the known or expected.”
Chicago Tribune Books Melvin Jules Bukiet
“Utterly extraordinary . . . in its epic ambition and accomplishment, Underworld calls out for comparison with works like those of Bely or Balzac that have defined the consciousness of their age.”
“Astonishing. A sprawling and spectacular look at a half-century in American life as seen through a series of multiple visions that come flashing into our consciousness in ways that are endlessly enlightening and awesome in their insights. DeLillo has raised literary standards to new highs here, and yet the book is a page-turner, a scene-stealer, a triumph of language that takes us everywhere we’ve never been.”
Houston Chronicle Steven E. Alford
“DeLillo understands the capacity of words to elevate us above the mundane, to establish a distance from things and a mastery over them, a power emerging from the capacity given to Adam, the ability to name.”
Harper’s Bazaar J. Hoberman
“Majestic and playful . . . amazingly light and supple for so weighty and elegiac a construction, Underworld soars like a cathedral on the audacity of DeLillo’s connections.”
Elle Paul Elie
“Reading DeLillo’s books bolsters out belief in the art of fiction: He catches the drift of end-of-the-century life in words, one bright shining sentence after another.”
Playboy Geoffrey Norman
“The larger the canvas, the better DeLillo paints. He is a novelist of big themes . . . . Underworld is a tour de force.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer James Held
“Precise, stark, gorgeous—something perhaps more properly termed a metaphysics of language, rendering and reflecting the mysteries of consciousness, those elusive meanings he and his character so passionately seek.”
GQ Thomas Mallon
“DeLillo has written the first defining novel of what we are still calling the post-Cold War period.”
The Boston Phoenix Adam Kirsch
“In years to come, DeLillo’s novel will certainly be seen as a perfect document of our paranoid, teeming, deeply nostalgic age.”
“The profundity, the intricacy, the beauty of Underworld leaves me in a state of awe. It’s one of a handful of novels that will come to define our culture in this century.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune Arthur Salm
“DeLillo’s breathtaking prose transforms this otherwise bleak wastelandinto a thrilling, brilliantly illuminated landscape.”
The Denver Post Dorman T. Shindler
“For those who love eloquent prose and powerful ideas, Underworld is an eight-course meal. . .. An eye-opener, a consciousness-raising treatise on modern America by a writerin love with the power of words and the country he calls his own.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Phil Hanrahan
“Underworld soars. Bigger andricher than anything Don DeLillo has done before, this multicharacter,time-leaping, sea-to-shining-sea dissection of Cold War American life isperilously good—so good, so strong, deep, knowing and funny, that you might betempted to read it and it alone, fanatically, the rest of your days.”
The Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer Donn Fry
“One of America’s greatest contemporary fiction writers illuminates American Cold War life and its obsessions, weaving history and imagination into a huge and compelling tapestry.”
Providence Journal-Bulletin Sam Coale
“Anyone who wants to try to understand an appreciate the last half-century of life in these United States can do no better than read Don DeLillo’s magnificent, beautifully written and outrageously persuasive new novel, Underworld, unquestionably his masterpiece. . . . A triumphant performance.”
The Plain Dealer Gary Lee Stonum
“Underworld, DeLillo’s richest and most ambitious novel, seeks nothing less than the secret truths of modern America.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Peter Wolfe
“Magnificent . . . Underworld is the most powerful and original novel that DeLillo, one of the strongest American writers of our time, has written.”
The Raleigh News and Observer Philip Gerard
“Think of Underworld as a successor not to the great American novels of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, but to the Russian masterpieces of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. . . . Abig, multistoried, glorious, moving novel.”
One was a book that everyone was reading: Don DeLillo's Underworld. I'd read the first chapter, then titled "Pafko at the Wall," when it was published in Harper's in 1993 and presumed that it was a self-contained novella (a brilliant one, the best fiction about baseball ever written and, I'm happy to admit, a piece that taught me all kinds of stuff that I was able to use in my own novel, The Veracruz Blues). When I heard that DeLillo had subsumed this masterpiece into a much longer novel, I could barely wait for its publication. The Friday the book came out, I stood outside the door of my local bookstore while a clerk opened the just-delivered boxes. I went home that weekend and read the book greedily, awestruck, afraid, and stunned by DeLillo's paranoid wonderland of material and technique. Underworld is that rare, big, advertised-as-good-for-you novel that makes good on its promises. Even better, I had the pleasure of being the first kid on my block to have read it, which I have spent the last few weeks lording over the many friends of mine who are now in the middle of the thing (I should not be proud of this, I know; sue me).
In DeLillo's newest...luminaries gathered in a box at the New York Polo Grounds to watch the Dodgers and the Giants battle it out for the pennant receive word that the Russians are testing an atomic bomb. DeLillo then flashes forward through a half-century of the Cold War as seen through the eyes of two protagonists briefly united by their passionate affair. BOMC and Quality Paperback Book Club main selections.
....The new novel is Don DeLillo's wake for the cold war....Underworld surges with magisterial confidence through time...and through space...mingling fictional characters with various heroes of cultural history.
The New York Times Books of the Century, Oct. 5, 1997
A page-turner and a masterwork.
Melvin Jules Bukiet
Utterly extraordinary....In its epic ambition and accomplishment, Underworld calls out for comparison with works...that have defined the consciousness of their age.
An astonishing piece of prose and a benchmark of 20th-century fiction, Underworld is stunningly beautiful in its generous humanity.
DeLillo's most affecting novel yet...a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art.
The New York Times
Read and rejoice....Formidable characters, themes, language....Underworld delivers on every count.
The Washington Post
Underworld is [DeLillo's] best novel and perhaps that most elusive of creatures, a great American novel...
San Francisco Chronicle
Working at the top of his form, DeLillo draws on his previous novels (Mao II, 1991, Libra, 1988, etc.) in shaping his most ambitious work yet, a grand Whitmanesque epic of postwar American lifea brainy, streetwise, and lyrical underground history of our times, full of menace and miracles, and humming with the bop and crackle of postmodern life.
DeLillo's bottom-up chronicle is also the history of garbage, from a rubble-strewn lot in the Bronx to nuclear waste dumps in the Southwest. And the true-blue American who spans these landscapes is one Nick Shay, now an executive with a waste-management firm, once a j.d. on the not-so-mean streets, where his father kept book and his mother worried her rosary for her two boys, the other a chess prodigy who later lends his mathematical genius to the weapons industry. From the '50s on, DeLillo's always accessible narrative is also the history of a baseball, the one that was the "Shot Heard Round the World," Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning home run in 1951. The fate of the actual ball, a relic of spiritual significance, seemingly lost, is also a lesson in enterprise. Snagged by a young black kid from Harlem, who identifies with Thomson's Homeric homer, the ball quickly becomes an object of commerce, purloined by the boy's desperate father. Eventually, Nick acquires it, but for him it more properly commemorates failure: Branca's losing pitch. Beyond garbage and baseball, DeLillo surveys the Cold War years with a satirist's eye for meaningful detail and a linguist's ear for existential patter.
Sweeping in scope and design, incorporating such diverse figures as Lenny Bruce and J. Edgar Hoover, DeLillo's masterpiece shouts against the times in the language of the times: postmodernism against itself. He kicks the rock of reality, teases out the connectedness of things, and leaves us in awe.
From the Publisher
Underworld is a “dazzling and prescient novel…A decade after 9/11, it’s worth rereading Don DeLillo’s 1997 masterpiece to appreciate how uncannily the author not only captured the surreal weirdness of life in the second half of the 20th century but also anticipated America’s lurch into the terror and exigencies of the new millennium...A breathtaking set piece…the prologue is a bravura display of Mr. DeLillo's literary powers."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
Read an Excerpt
From Part 5, Better Things For Better Living Through Chemistry: Selected Fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s, Chapter 3, January 11, 1955
We were about thirty miles below the Canadian border in a rambling encampment that was mostly barracks and other frame structures, a harking back, maybe, to the missionary roots of the order except the natives, in this case, were us. Poor city kids who showed promise; some frail-bodied types with photographic memories and a certain uncleanness about them; those who were bright but unstable; those who could not adjust; the ones whose adjustment was ordained by the state; a cluster of Latins from some Jesuit center in Venezuela, smart young men with a cosmopolitan style, freezing their weenies off; and a few farmboys from not so far away, shyer than borrowed suits.
"Sometimes I think the education we dispense is better suited to a fifty-year-old who feels he missed the point the first time around. Too many abstract ideas. Eternal verities left and right. You'd be better served looking at your shoe and naming the parts. You in particular, Shay, coming from the place you come from."
This seemed to animate him. He leaned across the desk and gazed, is the word, at my wet boots.
"Those are ugly things, aren't they?"
"Yes they are."
"Name the parts. Go ahead. We're not so chi chi here, we're not so intellectually chic that we can't test a student face-to-face."
"Name the parts," I said. "All right. Laces."
"Laces. One to each shoe. Proceed."
I lifted one foot and turned it awkwardly.
"Sole and heel."
"Yes, go on."
I set my foot back down and stared at the boot, which seemed about as blank as a closed brown box.
"There's not much to name, is there? A front and a top."
"A front and a top. You make me want to weep."
"The rounded part at the front."
"You're so eloquent I may have to pause to regain my composure. You've named the lace. What's the flap under the lace?"
"I knew the name. I just didn't see the thing."
He made a show of draping himself across the desk, writhing slightly as if in the midst of some dire distress.
"You didn't see the thing because you don't know how to look. And you don't know how to look because you don't know the names."
He tilted his chin in high rebuke, mostly theatrical, and withdrew his body from the surface of the desk, dropping his bottom into the swivel chair and looking at me again and then doing a decisive quarter turn and raising his right leg sufficiently so that the foot, the shoe, was posted upright at the edge of the desk.
A plain black everyday clerical shoe.
"Okay," he said. "We know about the sole and heel."
"And we've identified the tongue and lace."
"Yes," I said.
With his finger he traced a strip of leather that went across the top edge of the shoe and dipped down under the lace.
"What is it?" I said.
"You tell me. What is it?"
"I don't know."
"It's the cuff."
"The cuff. And this stiff section over the heel. That's the counter."
"That's the counter."
"And this piece amidships between the cuff and the strip above the sole. That's the quarter."
"The quarter," I said.
"And the strip above the sole. That's the welt. Say it, boy."
"How everyday things lie hidden. Because we don't know what they're called. What's the frontal area that covers the instep?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know. It's called the vamp."
"The vamp. The frontal area that covers the instep. I thought I wasn't supposed to memorize."
"Don't memorize ideas. And don't take us too seriously when we turn up our noses at rote learning. Rote helps build the man. You stick the lace through the what?"
"This I should know."
"Of course you know. The perforations at either side of, and above, the tongue."
"I can't think of the word. Eyelet."
"Maybe I'll let you live after all."
"Yes. And the metal sheath at each end of the lace."
He flicked the thing with his middle finger.
"This I don't know in a million years."
"Not in a million years."
"The tag or aglet."
"And the little metal ring that reinforces the rim of the eyelet through which the aglet passes. We're doing the physics of language, Shay."
"The little ring."
"You see it?"
"This is the grommet," he said.
"The grommet. Learn it, know it and love it."
"I'm going out of my mind."
"This is the final arcane knowledge. And when I take my shoe to the shoemaker and he places it on a form to make repairs a block shaped like a foot. This is called a what?"
"I don't know."
"My head is breaking apart."
"Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren't important, we wouldn't use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it," he said.
"An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace."
His white collar hung loose below his adam's apple and the skin at his throat was going slack and ropy and it seemed to be catching him unprepared, old age, coming late but fast.
I put on my jacket.
"I meant to bring along a book for you," he said.
Copyright © 1997 by Don DeLillo