Although once almost a cult figure in contemporary American fiction, by the 1980’s Don DeLillo had carved out that most desirable of literary niches for himself, as both a best-selling novelist and an award-winning darling of critics. This position was cemented in 1985 with the publication of White Noise, a best-seller and winner of the American Book Award.
DeLillo has built his reputation on a series of novels remarkable for their variety of subject matter within a consistency of theme. Ratner’s Star (1976) is a science-fiction novel, The Names (1982) is a novel of political intrigue, and Libra (1988) is a historical novel dramatizing and offering a theory of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Not all are as funny as White Noise often is, but in all of them DeLillo shows himself to be a witty writer who can vividly invoke a cast of colorful characters beset by paranoia and the catastrophes of modern life.
DeLillo’s style is distinctive and his themes are consistent, so that one can identify a DeLillo novel after reading only a few paragraphs, despite the variety of subject matter. DeLillo nevertheless does not work apart from and outside literary tradition. His like-minded contemporaries and literary antecedents are more obvious than obscure.
The contemporary writer with whom DeLillo is most obviously aligned is Thomas Pynchon, who, in novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), dramatizes humanity’s precarious existence in a technological nightmare-world where conspiracy abounds.
Both DeLillo and Pynchon are inheritors of two recent literary movements, the Beat school and the “black humor” movement. The Beat writers—Jack Kerouac and Williams S. Burroughs prominent among the novelists and Allen Ginsberg most famous among the poets—lent their manic voices in the 1950’s and 1960’s to an outcry against a materialistic, soulless American plutocracy. DeLillo’s Jack Gladney would surely share their sentiments. The black humor or absurdist writers—among them Joseph Heller and Eugène Ionesco—offered less a specifically political and American agenda than a philosophical stance toward humanity and its condition: Life is absurd, and in the face of it all one can do, most often, is to laugh hysterically. All of these writers belong to the rich tradition of satirists who look unflinchingly at people and their pretentions, communicating their horror and humor to the reader.