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Underworld Hardcover – October 3, 1997
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"It's all falling indelibly into the past," writes DeLillo, a past that he carefully recalls and reconstructs with acute grace. Jump from Giants Stadium to the Nevada desert in 1992, where Nick Shay, who now owns the baseball, reunites with the artist Kara Sax. They had been brief and unlikely lovers 40 years before, and it is largely through the events, spinoffs, and coincidental encounters of their pasts that DeLillo filters the Cold War experience. He believes that "global events may alter how we live in the smallest ways," and as the book steps back in time to 1951, over the following 800-odd pages, we see just how those events alter lives. This reverse narrative allows the author to strip away the detritus of history and pop culture until we get to the story's pure elements: the bomb, the baseball, and the Bronx. In an epilogue as breathless and stunning as the prologue, DeLillo fast-forwards to a near future in which ruthless capitalism, the Internet, and a new, hushed faith have replaced the Cold War's blend of dread and euphoria.
Through fragments and interlaced stories--including those of highway killers, artists, celebrities, conspiracists, gangsters, nuns, and sundry others--DeLillo creates a fragile web of connected experience, a communal Zeitgeist that encompasses the messy whole of five decades of American life, wonderfully distilled.
From Library Journal
-?David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, Fla.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The biggest story of a crime reporter’s career could be her last as fury, vengeance, and justice collide in this breathtaking thriller by New York Times bestselling author T.R. Ragan.| Learn more
- Publisher : Scribner; 1st edition (October 3, 1997)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 827 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0684842696
- ISBN-13 : 978-0684842691
- Item Weight : 2.81 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.56 x 1.93 x 9.58 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,766,717 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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It begins with a 60-page prologue putting the reader at the Polo Grounds in New York on that day in October 1951 when Bobby Thompson hits a pennant-winning home run for the NY Giants off of Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca. It came to be called “The Shot Heard Round the World.” Though in reality the home run ball was never found, DeLillo imagines it recovered by a scrawny kid, Cotter Martin, and proceeds loosely to follow the ownership of that ball, in a sort of six-degrees of separation manner, down through the decades.
Their paths crisscross, intersect and overlap in an amazing display of literary skill. For example, on page 608 we see Charles Wainwright Jr., one time owner of the ball, navigating a B-52 bomber over Vietnam in 1969, the very same B-52 dubbed ‘Long Tall Sally’ -- with cheeky nose art to prove it -- the very same plane mothballed and depicted in the opening chapters circa 1992 as the canvas for Klara Sax and her band of desert artists. There are many such links, past, present, future.
There is nothing here in UNDERWORLD that passes for a plot. Not really. DeLillo builds his edifice with vignettes, short clipped sections, sometimes abruptly shifting in person, place and time. UNDERWORLD is visual, cinematic, in style. His dialogue, unlike any author I’ve read, rings true, authentic, and captures that pragmatic, nonverbal element in conversation, the way shared histories, context, and physical gestures fill in the gaps. And then there’s the conversations that don’t click at all, people just talking past one another.
But something else important happened on that day when Thompson hit the home run, something of a more ominous sort that would change lives: the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb. Another “shot heard round the world.”
From the 1951 events, the Giants-Dodgers game and the Soviet test explosion, DeLillo jumps to 1992 and the Arizona desert and a group of artists using mothballed B-52s as their canvass. From there, the novel moves backward chronologically, back to 1951. Was this to mimic the countdown of a rocket, or atomic blast? No matter, it works. We see some of the characters in their full development in 1992, then over the next 700+ pages learn how they got that way.
It’s a huge cast of characters, many historical figures like J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Sinatra, Lenny Bruce, Jackie Gleason, and Harry Caray.
If there is an overriding theme or motif in the novel, it is the obsession with trash. Garbage. Where the home run baseball is the antithesis of trash - a treasured piece of baseball history - the atomic bomb has the ability to turn the world to trash. And then there’s the problem of the spent plutonium, that ultimate of all hazardous wastes. Even one of the main characters, Nick Shay, owner of the 1951 baseball, works for an international waste company.
The Jesuits taught me to examine things for second meanings and deeper connections. Were they thinking about waste? We were waste managers, waste giants, we processed universal waste. Waste has a solemn aura now, an aspect of untouchability. White containers of plutonium waste with yellow caution tags. Handle carefully. Even the lowest household trash is closely observed. People look at their garbage differently now, seeing every bottle and crushed carton in a planetary context. 
The writing is as good as it gets. And while there is certainly joy in the first reading, I’m finding it equally entertaining after turning that final page to return to the first chapters and reacquaint myself with the characters I just left, forty years older in DeLillo’s reverse chronology, and a few months after I’d begun reading. Like a lot of post-modern literature, UNDERWORLD isn’t for those looking for linear plotting, or plotting at all, for that matter. And the characters are not particularly fleshed out. But the journey is certainly worth the time and effort.
I read the whole thing and the ending was certainly not worth it. The book is overly-complicated, aimless most of the time, and reeks of intellectual pretensions. I respect the amount of effort that DeLillo put into this book, but, ultimately, the book seemed to suffer the more he tried. 'Underworld' is a meditation on the themes of the Cold War, nostalgia, and garbage. A lot of garbage. So much garbage that you could reduce this book by 500 pages and still get the point. These themes are explored through vignettes that switch between the perspectives of different characters (most of them inconsequential) and gradually go back in time, starting in 1990 and ending in the early 50s. The reader gets the sense that something momentous and revelatory will happen in the 50s section to justify the reverse-chronological storytelling. Nope. The momentous event is casually revealed much earlier in the book, and by the time we see the actual event take place, there's nothing that shocking about it considering the characters involved. Nothing in the story is worth the wait and the story seems like nothing but waiting. However, DeLillo still manages to deliver countless spectacular sentences, a great opening scene, and moments of profundity. He creates many intriguing setups throughout his novel—but hardly ever follows up in a satisfactory way. I'm afraid the grande punchline at the very end of the book doesn't justify the meandering 827 pages before it.
- The Klara Sax sections in the middle just about killed me. In a book of forgettable characters, she seemed particularly flat. She's a depressed artist who likes to spend time on rooftops. And? AND???
-Many of the characters sound the same and most of them seem to be lacking any semblance of a conscience. I understand that he's trying to represent flawed, imperfect characters—trying to create real people. But the characters seem to show no remorse or consideration for the damage they're doing to their relationships whenever they cheat on their spouse). For example, Klara's fling with Nick is just strange. Nick is already shown to be somebody who cheats remorselessly and, basically, can easily get whatever he wants (which is dubious). Klara, however, appears to be utterly oblivious to the effects this would have on her young family—notably her infant daughter.
-The Lenny Bruce bits seem hit and miss. Many reviewers on here enjoyed them. I for one found them annoying and frustrating; I just wanted something, anything, significant to happen in the story.
-The reverse chronology device was pointless
-The internet is heaven…really?
-I don't like baseball, but the way DeLillo wrote about baseball made me enjoy the sport vicariously through some of the characters. I particularly enjoyed the character who collected artifacts connected to the game.
-The opening, though a bit long, was promising and made me think I was in store for an American epic. It ends with the kid, Cotter, running with the historical ball away from a fellow fan—a man who works in construction ( a common cover for the mob). Thus, considering the book's title, I thought the book would proceed from this great opening scene and heavily feature the mob. Nope.
-DeLillo tends to make a lot of grande thematic statements at once. It's overwhelming and often seems pretentious.
—The Texas Highway Killer—another plotline that disappeared halfway through the book. Well, it was interesting while it lasted.
I could go on and on. This review has been primarily negative, but to be fair, there are plenty of engaging scenes to be found throughout the book. It's just that, once again, none of it goes anywhere in a satisfying way.
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Therefore, it goes without saying that in its writing, this is also a significant act. The craft with which Delillo reveals the characters, with the vista of the Cold War roaring across savannahs and cities throughout the US takes you to that time and place. His sense of rhythm in speech is unmatched in American writing: it is perhaps only Amis of the English writers who can compare and I am never certain if he is serious or deliberately tabloid in his patter.
The art really is in Delillo's ability to make the banal into a prism not far short of ecstasy. This is a novel about waste and rubbish, trash and garbage, which, as he says, 'will end up consuming you'. This book will have the same effect: its proclivity for consuming hours of your time, before bed, over weekends, is unmatched and unrivalled.
Its subject matter and its length make it perhaps the perfect book for our ages. It is a semi-fictional (with some real characters and places) account of the world teetering on the edge of tomorrow, with atomic warfare only moments away. Given where we are now, unable to experience the world with our senses and only through screens, means that this story is perhaps the ideal lockdown book: you will not regret reading this and it may even change the way you look at our history and your present.
A note of caution: I tried to read this book over ten years ago and couldn't manage it. Then, last summer I picked up 'White Noise' and worked through Delillo's work before ending up with this. I would recommend, if you are unfamiliar with his writing to try 'White Noise', 'Mao II' or 'Libra' before this as they are more 'conventional' in the sense that they tell a tale through their progressive narrative. You won't be disappointed with any of these, but I believe that Underworld stands apart as the most significant act by one of the world's greatest living writers in the English language.