Underworldby Don DeLillo
A finalist for the National Book Award, Don DeLillo’s most powerful and riveting novel—“a great American novel, a masterpiece, a thrilling page-turner” (San Francisco Chronicle)—Underworld is about the second half of the twentieth century in America and about two people, an artist and an executive, whose lives intertwine in/i>/i>… See more details below
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A finalist for the National Book Award, Don DeLillo’s most powerful and riveting novel—“a great American novel, a masterpiece, a thrilling page-turner” (San Francisco Chronicle)—Underworld is about the second half of the twentieth century in America and about two people, an artist and an executive, whose lives intertwine in New York in the fifties and again in the nineties. With cameo appearances by Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Thompson, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Toots Shor, “this is DeLillo’s most affecting novel…a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art” (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times).
The New York Times Books of the Century, Oct. 5, 1997
The New York Times
The Washington Post
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.
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)
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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
What People are saying about this
Michael Ondaatje Author of The English Patient You pick up and travel with DeLillo anywhere the bliss of a baseball game, the meeting of old lovers in a desert. He offers us another history of ourselves, the official underground moments. He smells the music in argument and brag. He throws the unbitten coin of fame back at us. The book is an aria and a wolf-whistle of our half century. It contains multitudes.
Meet the Author
Don DeLillo is the author of fifteen novels, including Zero K, Underworld, Falling Man, White Noise, and Libra. He has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Jerusalem Prize for his complete body of work, and the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2010, he was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Prize. The Angel Esmeralda was a finalist for the 2011 Story Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. In 2012, DeLillo received the Carl Sandburg Literary Award for his body of work.
- Westchester County, New York
- Date of Birth:
- November 20, 1936
- Place of Birth:
- New York City
- Fordham University, 1958
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I read 150 pages of the 827-page book, and skimmed much of the rest, and only read that much of it because the novel was on a list of literary fiction I'd been working through. I knew it was difficult and wanted to give it a fair chance to win me over. Otherwise, I would have stopped at the second page of story. I not only don't find this is a great book and a "page-turner" as promised in the blurbs, I found the novel a badly written one from the first pages: endless run-on sentences-of-doom, forced and clunky metaphors, random bits forced into sentences where they don't belong. I'm aware, that like the doorstop length, these are all techniques that plenty of critics would find evidence of profundity, but they left me cold. The book jumps from omniscience with touches of second person in the Prologue to first person in Part One, and much of the rest looking though the novel is third person. You can tell looking at the section title pages that the main story is non-linear; like Pinter's "Betrayal" or the film "Memento," you work yourself backward from the early 90s to the early 50s in each of the six parts until you hit the epilogue set in the near future. Nothing about this book is straightforward--not the prose, point-of-view, narrative, characters or the very thin plot. Even many reviewers who found the book a mess thought the prologue a work of genius, so if you're not enchanted by it--and I wasn't--I doubt the book will hold you. I think that prologue does say a lot about Delillo. Both it and a great deal of the book hangs on baseball as a metaphor for American culture and is about a legendary game between the Giants and Dodgers in 1951--through it we follow not just a turnstile jumper but characters like J Edgar Hoover and Jackie Gleason--who is described vividly and repellently as throwing up on Frank Sinatra. That turnstile jumper who skipped out of school finds a seat and is befriended by a man who buys him a soda. At the end of the game he'll twist this man's fingers to pry the home-run baseball out of his hands. So, if baseball is America, then the message is America is grasping, greedy, thieving, and repellent. The bulk of the book then deals with the man who ultimately bought that baseball--Nick Shay--who is in waste management. The first person narrative of Part One is more accessible than the Prologue, but still at times disjointed in the modernist way, and we're headed to another extended metaphor: American culture as trash. In short, if you're looking for a gripping story with characters you care about and a narrative that sucks you in, you're looking in the wrong place. But if you're the kind who loves a disjointed narrative with overwrought, pretentious prose that revels in showing us the tawdriness of American life, by all means, go pick up a copy.
Underworld is one of those books that does not seem to inter-connected, this seemingly detachment from character to character drives home the colossal picture that Delillo is trying to make. It will not be enjoyed if seen otherwise.
This book is a masterpiece, but like many good things, it may be best to start with some earlier (and probably easier to follow) books by the author. Libra (a novel about Oswald's and the mafia's role in the assasination of JFK), White Noise, and even End Zone are all probably good places to start. That said, Underworld is awesome in its scope (fifty years, many subplots, Delillo's incredible command of dialogue), and highly recommended.
Delilo writes about American culture with incisive clarity and wit. Some people get it, and some people, like the negative reviewers on this page, don't. There's something to be found in every sentence.
If one were to pick their recipe for a 'perfect book', 'Underworld' would not meet many readers' criteria. The ending is somewhat disconnected and disappointing. This is not a book that you will sit up all night to finish, nor is it a book you can walk away from for a week or two due to its complexity. However the vast tapestry woven from the opening chapter of the 'Shot Heard Around the World' and the detailed and real character development are arresting. The contrasts between postwar neighborhood centered New York City life and today's disposable society are telling and the New York portraits-past and present- are wonderfully evocative. I generally like a fast read, as long as it is well written, but this book remains in my memory.
He slide off her back and started going North. -Thanks.-
Walks in her eyes dark hands in chains crying for Carter
There are side affects
Do you resent me
Lisa-RR-H hit the nail right on the head with her review. I was bored to tears with this book. It is hard for me to comprehend why it appears on lists of "must reads". I've a new policy- if a book does not grab me, I feel no obligation to finish it, so I read maybe a third of this and gave it to the library.
My dad HATES ME
Nudged Oakkit out, and padded home
Go to Cave result 1!
Nah im good its fun here his voice echos