Brilliant Shot by Delillo Complex Novel Begins with Two Historic Blasts

Article excerpt


A novel by Don DeLillo

827 pages, Scribner, $27.50 *** DON DeLILLO's magnificent "Underworld" opens on the afternoon of 3 October 1951 in the Polo Grounds, where the Brooklyn Dodgers and the home team New York Giants are playing a game that will decide the championship of the National League. Surprisingly, 20,000 seats are empty in the "old rust-hulk of a structure." Rain had been forecasted; the Giants were thrashed the day before; there was no advance ticket sale. Undeterred, 14-year-old Cotter Martin skips school in order to gatecrash the big game. He'll never regret his decision. The game provides him with his proudest, most brilliant moment; Cotter pockets the come-from-behind home run ball Bobby Thomson hit in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the pennant for the Giants, 5-4. But other dramas are breaking in the Polo Grounds on the day of the "shot heard round the world." Comedian Jackie Gleason misses baseball's mightiest blast because of a vomiting fit induced by his drinking too much beer. His box-seat companion, J. Edgar Hoover, pays little attention to Thomson's home run because he has just heard about another historic blast - the atomic bomb the Soviets exploded that day in the republic of Kazakhstan. This juxtaposition of far-flung events says something crucial about DeLillo. Rather than building toward climaxes, he discloses the truth through a series of analogies, cross-references and mirror images. One of his characters claims that on Oct. 3 many New Yorkers suspected that the Giants' pennant victory was yoked to some still larger event. Supporting this claim is the appearance on Page One of The New York Times of reports of the Kazakhstan explosion and the baseball game "symmetrically mated, same typeface, same-size type, same number of lines." This two-headed midcentury moment has survived. To remind us of it, DeLillo says several times during the action that everything in life connects. That the points of connection are obscure and remote matters less than the huge odds the points overcame to connect in the first place. Though one of America's most scientifically minded novelist, DeLillo has set his sights in "Underworld" on a nonquantifiable reality, i.e., one that can't be counted and measured. Thus he posits a mystical link between orange juice and the lethal Agent Orange. He also cites photos showing Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca, the unlucky Dodger pitcher who served up the famous home run ball, flanked by two different American presidents. The idea that all events have a mystical twin, or underhistory, had already begun taking shape in the book's opening sequence. Some 40 years after the game, a woman recalls attending a party where she stood alongside either J. Edgar Hoover or Truman Capote, two men with the same strange head shape. Some 500 pages later, DeLillo will describe this November 1966 masked ball at New York's Plaza Hotel hosted by Capote, but not until he has Hoover ask another guest, "Where were you when Thomson hit the homer?" Something more than chance set Hoover's memory back 15 years. The accumulation of paper - in the form of torn scorecards, newspaper scraps, and food wrappers - that drifted from the upper decks of the Polo Grounds, which DeLillo calls "a second force that runs parallel to the game," foreshadows the contagion of waste material that will assume such might in the novel. Included in this floating debris, advisedly, is a copy of a 16th-century Flemish canvas featuring depravity and ugliness that both repels and attracts the stoical FBI chief. Hoover's charged response makes it fitting that the book's main character and Everyman figure is the 57-year-old waste disposal expert Nick Shay. Because a consumer society like ours produces mountains of waste, specialists like Nick have become essential to our welfare. The prodigality with which we produce garbage has made garbage's handling and disposal a major industry. …