Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Underworld is divided into eleven parts: six narrative sections, a prologue, an epilogue, and three sections narrated from the perspective of Manx Martin. Each section is marked by nonchronological shifts among times and locales, beginning with the onset of the Cold War and culminating in the post-Cold War 1990’s. DeLillo links the Soviet Union’s first detonation of an atomic device, on October 3, 1951, with the famous Brooklyn Dodgers-New York Giants baseball playoff game that occurred on the same date. This connection between a sports game and a geopolitically dramatic weapons test—two “shots heard ’round the world,” in the parlance of the times—becomes the central reference point for the actions, conflicts, and intersections of characters in the novel.
The novel is narrated from the points of view of all of its major characters, and it shifts intermittently between first-person and third-person narration. Underworld begins at the famous Dodgers-Giants playoff. DeLillo’s interconnection of both “shots heard ’round the world” is clear from the outset, because one of the celebrity spectators attending the game is Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover hears news from an aide of the atomic test just before Bobby Thomson comes to bat. Moments later, as outfield fans scuffle for the game-winning home-run ball, Hoover considers the possibilities of the new age just inaugurated by the...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
At more than eight hundred pages, Underworld represents DeLillo’s most complete and complex critique of postwar American culture. It is an audacious, massive text crossed by dozens of related plot lines and hundreds of characters, many drawn from history, that covers nearly five decades. An ambitious cultural biography, it offers a wide-lens look at the nuclear age from the apocalyptic anxieties of the early Eisenhower years to the improbable collapse of the Soviet empire in the early 1990’s. The narrative organizes its reading of this half-century by tracking the intricate (and entirely invented) movements of the home run ball Bobby Thomson launched on October 3, 1951, to give the New York Giants an improbable National League pennant, an artifact historically never recovered.
DeLillo positions that wide-ranging, global narrative against a more conventional story line, that of Nick Shay, a successful Arizona waste management executive in his fifties who comes to buy the fabled baseball (or at least what he thinks is the real ball). Well past mid-life, Nick has decided to make his peace with his own troubled history, specifically a difficult adolescence in the Bronx, including a father who abandoned the family, Nick’s brief affair with a teacher’s wife, and his accidental shooting of a neighborhood heroin addict. In the sections devoted to Nick’s adolescence, DeLillo reveals—for the first time in his fiction—some of his own childhood...
(The entire section is 526 words.)