DeLillo’s first novel is titled Americana, and the title would serve well for his whole body of fiction. Americana is an account of a generally aimless trip around much of the United States—New York City, Maine, the Midwest, and Texas—and its first-person narrator, David Bell, calls it a “mysterious and sacramental journey.” The novel has two features that have distinguished all of DeLillo’s work: a true gift for the evocative and lyrical power of language and a talent for creating eccentric characters who are less believable characters and more satiric cartoon figures. These features have enabled DeLillo, a master satirist, to evoke American life effectively while downplaying the traditional reader expectations of plot and suspense. The characters in his novels are often dispossessed, alienated, and paranoid, and they dwell in an America as surreal as DeLillo’s fictional universe.
The topics in these early works included rock music, football, mathematics, an “airborne toxic event,” and scenarios of nuclear devastation. In treating such topics, implied criticism of the irrationality of much of American life is inevitable, but DeLillo’s treatment of his characters is generally even-tempered rather than corrosive. He has even said of the unappealing Pammy and Lyle in Players that “I can’t talk about them as people I love or hate. They’re people I recognize.”
One aspect of DeLillo’s ongoing praise of folly is his extraordinary comic sense. The originality of his conceptions stands out immediately, but most of the discussions of this work try to keep this a secret. Examples include a man in White Noise who wants to hire a prostitute on whom to perform the Heimlich maneuver, a woman in Ratner’s Star who is described as having no lap, and Esther and Vera Chalk, the two sisters in End Zone who host picnics with “meatless and breadless organic sandwiches.” The novels are peopled through and through with these likable oddities; Ratner’s Star in particular is a virtual megalopolis of such types, many of whom seemed to have walked straight out of the pages of the third book of Jonathan Swift’s satiric Gulliver’s Travels (1726).
Of all of the United States’ manic preoccupations during the 1960’s, none was more intense or better publicized than rock and roll and recreational hallucinogenic drugs. These two subjects are often intimately identified in the popular imagination, and they become the twin plot strands of Great Jones Street. This novel’s rock-and-roll hero, Bucky Wunderlick, sings tunes of America’s heartland such as “VC Sweetheart,” “Cold War Lover,” “Protestant Work Ethic Blues,” and his signature song, “Pee-Pee-Maw-Maw.” Bucky suddenly abandons his rock group in Houston and goes into hiding in a “small crooked room, cold as a penny,” on Great Jones Street in New York City. He is soon entangled in a bewildering plot to retrieve a package of a new, untried dope, and he is forced into illicit commerce with such figures as Epiphany Powell (a black woman bodyguard), Azarian (a band member), and Bucky’s manager, Globki. Prominent in the swirling plot is Opel Hampton, educated—at least for a year—at Missouri State Women’s College in Delaware, Texas. The plot of Great Jones Street is trivial, and the characters are comic-strip jokes, but the language is always strong, and the hallucinatory world of rock music and psychedelic obsessions is turned into an effective piece of Americana. Bucky Wunderlick will appear again in various incarnations as the man who goes to earth to hide out from the madness of life, a favorite DeLillo character.
Great Jones Street, then, is a minor novel but is typical DeLillo work in several ways. It was followed by Ratner’s Star, and it and other early novels Americana and End Zone were mostly genial in mood. They featured protagonists who were vulnerable, human, and sympathetic. The next two novels, Players and Running Dog, introduced a more cynical tone. Players is a decided change of pace after the long, boisterous Ratner’s Star. Its two “players”—Lyle and Pammy, husband and wife—are, respectively, a Wall Street broker and a writer for the Grief Management Council. Their life together disintegrates when a terrorist murders a broker on the floor of the stock exchange and when, soon after that, Pammy learns of Lyle’s affair with an office secretary. Pammy flees from their marital nightmare by accompanying two homosexual friends to Maine, but one of these men commits suicide, and Pammy is left to face chaos again. Meanwhile, Lyle meets (through his mistress) the members of the terrorist cell and gets involved as a double agent working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The theme of betrayal and intrigue introduced in Great Jones Street and developed in Players becomes more intense in Running Dog, which offers DeLillo’s most elaborate plot to that point. The likable looneys of the early novels are here replaced by pornography merchants, mobsters, and hired killers. The aging smut peddler Lightborne seeks “the century’s ultimate piece of decadence,” an amateur film supposedly depicting the last days in Adolf Hitler’s bunker. Other characters include the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-trained Glen Selvy, a regular customer of Lightborne who buys not for himself but for Senator Lloyd Percival. The sordid cast includes a mysterious figure known as Lomax, to whom Selvy sells information about Percival, who is investigating an intelligence unit called PAC/ORD. This group has a secret arm—Radial Matrix—that has prospered in its cover as a straight business firm under its chief, Earl Mudger, who is Lomax’s boss.
Selvy acquires two women consorts, first Moll Robbins, a journalist from the magazine Running Dog, and later Nadine Rademacher, an Arkansas girl who has been scraping through life in a Times Square sleaze joint telling dirty stories while almost nude. Selvy has to flee New York with Nadine when Mudger suspects him of dealing independently for the film and sends two Vietnamese hit men to kill him.
His life in danger amid shadowy plots and subplots, Selvy does what DeLillo characters always do—he heads for cover where he can hold off the outside world. For Selvy, this hideout is the Marathon Mines, a bleak piece of Texas where the CIA once trained its agents. He faces his pursuers with only a bob knife; when he is killed, his head is packed in a bag for delivery for Mudger.
The whole story ends rather flatly for all its main characters when Lightborne gets the film and shows it to a Texas pornography king named Odell Armbrister, only to discover it is but a dull parade of women and children in innocuous pursuits, enlivened only by Hitler prancing around in the role of Charlie Chaplin playing Hitler. As the screening ends, a hoodlum named Augie the Mouse shows up and claims the film for Mudger.
Running Dog is significant for its preview of Libra; DeLillo has a sure feel for the riffraff that populate the darker corners of American life, and he sniffs out their ties to the powerful and respectable. The paranoia of his characters is mitigated by the fact that someone is after them and sinister forces are indeed at work to disrupt their lives. A century ago, Bucky Wunderlick and Glen Selvy would have sought the anonymity available in the frontier, but in the 1970’s they have to hunker down in uncongenial refuges in the outlands of Texas and New York City and wait out their tormentors. Pammy hopes for emotional relief in rural Maine, but she finds only more pain in the company of the two homosexual men, who are damaged in their own ways.
These early novels develop several distinct character types. There are the entertaining eccentrics, often oddly named, such as Epiphany Powell, the Chalk sisters, and the astonishing cast in Ratner’s Star. They sometimes bear scars of psychic struggle, but they are more often comic constructions with no human interest. Then there are the central figures who retreat from defeat and humiliation, waiting for the end with a resignation born of their grim vision of the madness and meaninglessness of the world. In the more sour novels there are the pornography dealers, the hit men, and other vicious examples of human slag. The bleakness of DeLillo’s universe derives more from metaphysical sources than political ones. That is, his anatomies of America and Americana expose the seven deadly sins as endemic throughout the body politic, but their etiology traces to human nature rather than to political figures such as Lyndon B. Johnson or Richard Nixon.
The language in DeLillo’s work always appeals strongly, and it is the product of much conscious attention. He explains his concern with language in an interview with Tom LeClair:What writing means to me is trying to make interesting, clear, beautiful language. Working at sentences and rhythms is probably the most satisfying thing I do as a writer. I think after a while a writer can begin to know himself through his language. He sees someone or something reflected back at him from these constructions.
DeLillo believes that the power of fiction goes deep enough that, over time, a writer might be able to “shape himself as a human being” through the language he uses to “remake himself.” In DeLillo’s later novels, he expands that interest in language as a vehicle for self-expression to investigate how a culture shapes itself and its identity using language. In Libra, Mao II, and Underworld, DeLillo in turn explores the implications of American history itself and the responsibility of those who engage raw event and attempt to shape it into historic record. Recognized during the 1990’s as an engaging and often satiric cultural anatomist, DeLillo explored a wide range of issues that have defined America since the end of World War II, including the paranoia of the Cold War era, the impact of the burgeoning media technology, the pressures of celebrity and the cult of charismatic figures, and the American fascination with violence and mayhem.
Following the publication of the massive Underworld, however, DeLillo surprised (and alienated) many of his longtime readers by retreating from large-scale sociocultural narratives to offer more intimate character studies in slender works that reveal, as he approached the age of seventy, his deep roots in Catholicism and his long interest in the spiritual definition of the human creature (he studied theology and philosophy at Fordham). The Body Artist (2001) uses the character of a successful thirty-something performance artist whose film-director husband inexplicably commits suicide to explore the complex problem of contemporary spiritual enervation and the importance of appreciating the stunning wonder of the everyday. Attempting to recover from the trauma of her husband’s death, Lauren Hartke retreats to an isolated ocean cottage and there encounters a nameless stranger apparently living in the third floor of the cottage. Unsure of who the man is (initially she thinks he may be a mentally challenged drifter but comes to see him as a paranormal presence, even a guardian angel), Lauren uses the fragmented and eccentric conversations she conducts with him as a way to protect herself from accepting the painful reality of her husband’s death and the role that her absorption in her art may have played in his growing sense of alienation and loneliness. It is only when she frees herself of the stranger’s presence and accepts her responsibility that she opens herself up to the complicated beauty of being alive.
In the follow-up work, the spare Cosmopolis (2003), DeLillo tells a Dostoevskian parable of the financial ruin of a fabulously wealthy Wall Street asset manager telescoped into a single day, indeed a single drive across midtown Manhattan. As he inches through Manhattan traffic, Eric Packer—gambling on a longshot financial play and, in the process, losing his considerable fortune—is shadowed by a disgruntled former employee who believes that the Internet he manned in connection with his brief employment in Packer’s conglomerate has sucked his soul from him. In a shattering denouement in an empty tenement in Hell’s Kitchen, the man shoots Packer to death to teach him the value of humility. At the very moment that Packer, now helpless and penniless, registers the sound of the gunshot, he momentarily feels an inexplicable identity that catapults him beyond the tight confines of the flesh and blood. The reader, perhaps resisting the implications of such an ending, must wrestle with the possibility that Packer reclaims his soul in this richly ambiguous ending that extends the promise of redemption to a contemporary materialistic age.
First published: 1972
Type of work: Novel
A young man copes with college football and fears of nuclear war.
Gary Harkness is a talented young halfback with a troubled mind and soul, and Logos College in West Texas is a last chance for him. Gary’s troubles begin with his father’s saying about life: “Suck in that gut and go harder.” His father had played football at Michigan State University, and his life creed is an amalgam of clichés from Teddy Roosevelt as adapted by Knute Rockne: “(1) A team sport. (2) The need to sacrifice. (3) Preparation for the future. (4) Microcosm of life.” This parody of the work ethic and the American Dream sticks in Gary’s throat, making him a constant disappointment to his pharmaceutical salesman father.
His father, who had spent most of his time on the bench, makes a real football player out of Gary, who becomes all-state and receives twenty-eight scholarship offers. He goes first to Syracuse University, where he meets a young woman who is hiding from the world and goes to ground with her—fortified by two boxes of Oreos and an economics text full of “incoherent doctrines.” At Penn State the next fall, Gary succumbs to angst and retreats, this time to an Adirondack winter at home. Gary’s next sojourn is at Miami, where all goes well until he becomes obsessed with the horrifying accounts of nuclear war that he finds in a textbook. Depression sends him home again, waiting out the year before moving on to Michigan State as an “aging recruit.” When he and two other players hit an Indiana safety man so hard that he dies the next day, Gary gives up once more and stays in his room for seven weeks, shuffling a deck of cards.
Therefore, Logos College is Gary’s final chance. At Logos, he finds himself playing for Coach Emmett Creed, who says of football, “It’s only a game, but it’s the only game.” Gary’s teammates are a colorful lot, notably Taft Robinson and Anatole Bloomberg. Taft is a transfer student from Columbia University, the first black student at Logos. He is brilliant in the classroom as well as on the football field, but he eventually gives up on football. Taft reads books about the Holocaust and ponders his claim that Rembrandt van Rijn and Johann Sebastian Bach had Masai blood in their veins. Taft is another DeLillo loner in retreat from the madness of the world.
Taft’s roommate is Anatole Bloomberg, left tackle on offense. Anatole is also “a voluntary exile of the philosophic type.” Anatole is overweight and suffers from enuresis. He is a northerner who is, he says, “unjewing” himself in West Texas:You go to a place where there aren’t any Jews. After that you revise your way of speaking. You take out the urbanisms. The question marks. All that folk wisdom. The melodies in your speech. The inverted sentences. You use a completely different set of words and phrases. Then you transform your mind into a ruthless instrument. You teach yourself to reject certain categories of thought.
By these means he will relieve his “enormous nagging historical guilt.”
Gary spends most of his time away from the football field with either Myna Corbett, a classmate in Mexican geography, or...
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