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Don DeLillo: Underworld

This is the novel that catapulted DeLillo to fame and it is easy to see why. The opening chapter was published in a variety of prestigious magazines before publication and is clearly one of the finest pieces of writing anywhere. It is set on October 3, 1951 and takes place at the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants. The Giants and Dodgers finished the season level on points and have a three game playoff series. Each has won one game, so this game will decide who wins the pennant. The Giants were winning 4-1 but Bobby Thompson hit the shot heard round the world to win the game for the Dodgers. DeLillo does not simply describe this game – though he does that brilliantly – but he sets it up with the players and their imaginary conversations and with the conversations and actions of the spectators, both the fictional characters of his novel but also real ones, including Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Edgar J Hoover and the restaurant owner, Toots Short, all of whom may or may not have been there.

But after reading this piece – and it bears reading several times – the subsequent novel, while interesting and definitely worth reading, does not seem to fully measure up to this initial promise. DeLillo has made a connection here between the baseball game – we follow the actual baseball hit by Thompson which is recovered and subsequently sold more than once – and the Cold War which can be seen to have started that day as it is when the world learns of the first Soviet nuclear tests. We zip back and forth between the cold war and all its side-effects, primarily through the eyes of Nick Shay, owner of the baseball and an expert in waste management. This is a huge novel and DeLillo goes headlong to put everything in – Lenny Bruce and the Cuba Missile Crisis, dead B-52s used as art and faux terrorists, a Texas sniper and Mick Jagger – all pop in and out as DeLillo carries on dissecting the 20th century in his own wondrous and inimitable way. Read the book but it is the opening passage that will stay with you.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Scribner