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. …