Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Okay, yeah — there's a bit more. It took me just shy of two months to plow through this behemoth. It's far from Gravity's Rainbow-level difficult. But it's not something you'll want to take to the beach. The novel jumps back and forth in time throughout the second half of the 20th century. We see different characters in different phases of their lives, and constantly meet new ones. It's a huge cast — from chess gurus to 1950s gangsters, from bored businessmen adulterers to graffiti artists to nuns.
But nuclear weapons and baseball are really the two most common themes of the novel, and they bob and weave past each other throughout the strains of stories, often connecting, often in surprising ways. For instance, the prologue of the novel — which is 60 pages of sheer, unadulterated genius — chronicles the last game of the baseball season in 1951 in which Bobby Thompson hit the famous "shot heard around the world" and the Giants won the pennant. J. Edgar Hoover is at the game, and is informed that the Russians have just test-detonated a nuclear device.
From there, through various strains of story, we follow the baseball Thompson hit through the years into the mid-1990s, as characters come in contact with it, including a memorabiliast named Marvin who has made it his life's work to authenticate the ball. If there is a main character in Underworld, it's Nick Shay, who works for a waste management company in Phoenix, and now owns the ball (if it is, indeed, the real ball). Immediately after the prologue, we see Nick driving through the West Texas desert to visit an art installation by a woman named Klara, who is painting decommissioned war planes. A guy named Charlie, who bought the Thompson baseball from the kid's father back in 1951, flew in one of these planes. And, also, Nick and Klara had had a brief affair back in 1950s New York.
I mean, there's just so much here: Lenny Bruce screaming "We're all gonna die" during his act during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A set piece about the New York City blackout in 1965. A serial killer who shoots people in their cars on Texas highways. And a scene where J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant go to a party in Manhattan, and Hoover might be gay.
It's just a massive amount of story. If you generally like this kind of thing, yes, Underworld is for you. I loved it...mostly. I hate to be as cliché as this, but Underworld really is a giant puzzle that rewards you as you figure out how each piece falls into place. And if even if you can't puzzle out the connections, often, DeLillo's prose is enough to keep you going. I thought often while reading that I wasn't going to remember this sentence or that metaphor, but it was enough to know that I'd enjoyed it immensely in that moment.
Posted by Greg Zimmerman at 11:33 AM