Don DeLillo DeLillo, Don (Vol. 27) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Don DeLillo 1936–

(Also writes under the pseudonym Cleo Birdwell) American novelist.

DeLillo's novels examine American obsessions, manias, and the mythmaking process of various media in American culture. DeLillo experiments with form and structure and is known for deemphasizing plot. Through fast-paced, fragmented presentations and other stylistic techniques, he continually expands upon the implications of his themes. Because of his use of unconventional literary devices, critics place DeLillo in the developing postmodern experimental movement that includes the novelists John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut.

DeLillo first gained wide attention with End Zone (1972), which was written from the perspective of a young man whose two consuming passions are football and nuclear warfare. Although generally recognized as a satire on the American obsession with the organized violence of football, End Zone also develops the idea of nuclear war as the climactic result of systems of ordered violence. Ratner's Star (1976), DeLillo's next major success, depicts a condition in which verbal ideas cannot compete with the clarity and order of mathematics. Like Pynchon, DeLillo believes that closed systems of energy in physics are related to closed systems of thought in metaphysics and that both create the illusion of an ordered universe. In DeLillo's work, knowledge is not static and finite but, like the modern scientific view of the cosmos, always in flux.

In Players (1977) and Running Dog (1978) DeLillo focuses on urban America, depicting pawn-like characters lost in a surreal, nightmarish existence. Although critics praised DeLillo's ability to evoke atmosphere, many readers found the novels excessively tawdry. Amazons (1980), a farce about the first woman to play in the National Hockey League and written under the pen name Cleo Birdwell, was praised primarily for its humor.

With his recent novel The Names (1982), DeLillo continues his examination of Americana, language, and learning and is hailed for his accurate characterization of American cultural values.

(See also CLC, Vols. 8, 10, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)

Martin Levin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There have been many-too-many novels in which the protagonist tries to find himself: [in "Americana"] … he tries to lose himself.

"I'm trying to outrun myself," says ex-network executive David Bell (pausing for breath on an Indian reservation) and one must count his effort a success. There is no real identity to be found in this heaping mass of tossed word-salad. There are thickets of hallucinatory whimsy, an infatuation with rhetoric, but hardly a trace of a man.

The purple nightmares conjured up by Don DeLillo—in the form of various transcontinental interludes—are only fitfully interesting, although they do propose some curious images…. [The] most one can say for Mr. DeLillo's novel is that we're a bit closer to learning why Dave wants to lose himself.

Martin Levin, in a review of "Americana," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 30, 1971, p. 20.

Thomas R. Edwards

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The writing in "End Zone" is continuously energetic, shifty, fun to watch for its own sake.

And, though the serious fan may care less about the final score than the quality of play, "End Zone" adds up impressively. DeLillo's first novel, "Americana" …, was also beautifully written and paced, but its materials seemed pretty familiar—the New York media man (TV documentaries in this case) alienated from work, family and love, who hits the road with a company of losers and drop-outs and, after seeing Middle America at its touching, exhausted worst, makes an ambiguous return to where he left off. If "Americana" was a savagely funny portrait of middle-class anomie in a bad time, it was also too long and visibly ambitious, and too much like too many other recent novels, to seem as good as it should have.

In "End Zone" DeLillo finds in college football a more original and efficient vehicle for his sense of things now. Gary Harkness, his running-back hero, comes to Logos after brief stops at four major football schools, which he left for reasons that suggest how the sporting life reflects the terms of our larger life these days: Expelled from Syracuse for a harmless escapade with a spaced-out coed, he quit Penn State because he couldn't see practice as character-building, Miami because he got too depressingly interested in a class in nuclear-warfare theory, Michigan State because he fatally injured an opponent. Yet he both loves football and can't think of anything better to do, and Logos, seeking big-time prestige under a famous coach now down on his luck, is his last chance.

The novel tells the story of his first season at Logos. Thanks mainly to a magical black runner named Taft Robinson, the team wins every game but the big one (described in loving and authentic detail) with West Centrex Biotechnical. But it's a season of losses all the same. A teammate dies in a car accident; an assistant coach shoots himself; Mrs. Tom's plane crashes; Coach Creed mysteriously declines into a wheelchair case; Gary's fat, sloppy girl friend (to whom he was first attracted because of the appliquéd mushroom...

(The entire section is 882 words.)

Sara Blackburn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

DeLillo's third novel ["Great Jones Street"] … is narrated by a revered and temporarily retired American rock star, so burned out and eaten up by the insanity of the demands upon him that he's holed up in a crummy room on New York's Great Jones Street until he somehow regains his will to go on. I wish this novel could be described fairly as a book set in the rock and drug world—as DeLillo intends—but it doesn't work that way, and the failure is just about fatal. (pp. 2-3)

DeLillo's descriptions of the pre-art-scene Bowery neighborhood are lovely; they evoke exactly the aura of quiet, desperate lives going on in an atmosphere of industrial emptiness that suits the events that promise to take place, a kind of eerie, post-destruction silence, pervaded by an air of panic.

The panic comes from some initial suspense about whether Bucky has really broken off relations with the national death cult, which DeLillo sees as youth culture at the end of the sixties; it comes, too, from Transparanoia, the giant (multinational, of course) conglomerate that manages Bucky and everyone else who matters, and from the menacing members; of a loving country commune gone urban and brutal.

All of these parties are in a race for possession of a still-experimental version of a mind-boggling drug that will become the craze of the youth market, and the novel settles into a rather conventional race for the "product"—that is, whenever it remembers that it should have a plot….

Cropping up throughout the narrative are a number of items that mark Bucky's recent passage: a series of powerful, satanic, destruction-haunted lyrics from the group's repertoire, now rendered slick and self-righteous; a transcript of Bucky's meeting with the...

(The entire section is 733 words.)

J. D. O'Hara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Author of two fine novels, Americana and Great Jones Street, and one dazzling novel, End Zone, Don DeLillo [in Ratner's Star] writes the American version of a European novel of ideas. Perhaps he most resembles Thomas Mann, lacking Mann's mysticism and long-windedness but sharing his remarkable ability to evoke and evaluate the ideas, language and attitudes of a wide range of intellectual disciplines. DeLillo also possesses an undercutting skepticism proper to the age of Beckett and Borges, an eye for rational absurdity as keen as Barthelme's, and a sparkling comic inventiveness that fills his narratives with flashes of delight. He is already the writer Vonnegut, Barth and Pynchon were once oddly and variously taken to be, and he shows no signs of flagging, many signs of promise.

In End Zone one of DeLillo's many topics was the deceptive and incomplete nature of knowledge; another was the disparity between what we can manipulate intellectually, on the one hand, and "the untellable," on the other; a third was the contradictory temptations of complexity and simplicity; yet another was those unknowable, unspeakable fundamentals of existence, excrement and death. These topics recur in Ratner's Star, where excrement is pervasive and infectious, and death takes many forms, including decay, shadows, flooding, historical reversal, and cosmological black stars and black holes, as well as the moral and cultural death implied by corporate greed.

The areas of knowledge central to Ratner's Star are astronomy and mathematics. DeLillo...

(The entire section is 661 words.)

George Stade

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Don DeLillo's first three books had the feel of novels straining to be something else, of energies out of their element, tadpoles in a cocoon. If what novelists did was to round characters, set scenes and plot consequences, DeLillo was willing, but he did not seem happy doing it. He seemed happiest when careening off into a detour.

In "Americana" (1971), for instance, an executive at a TV network drops out of the rat race to drive cross country in pursuit of reality, America, himself. He finds them, but the news is not good. In "End Zone" (1972), a flakey halfback at Logos College in Texas jukes his way through a rough season. There are many references to war-games and to Vietnam. And in "Great Jones...

(The entire section is 670 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The subtitle of Amazons [by Cleo Birdwell] is "an intimate memoir by the first woman ever to play in the National Hockey League." She is Cleo Birdwell, who was reared in Badger, Ohio, where, as a youngster, she spent a good deal of time playing hockey. Our story begins with Cleo signing a contract with the New York Rangers, the ensuing news conference and meeting with the Garden (as in Madison Square) president, James Kinross, a crude-mouthed alcoholic. Throughout the memoir we see glimpses of the hockey world which include Cleo's dressing room, which, though separate and of questionable sanctity, she considers unnecessarily discriminatory. For the most part the book does not deal with hockey but concentrates...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

J. D. O'Hara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The title [of Amazons] is misleading. There is only one Amazon here, Ms. Birdwell, and her martial weapon is a hockey stick. Amazons is her autobiography, with appropriately heavy emphasis on last year, when she made athletic history by being the first woman to play in the National Hockey League. Fans now look forward to her return under the New York Rangers' interesting new management, about which she says some perceptive things…. But Birdwell does not write primarily for sports fans, among whom the literacy rate is low. She writes for a higher audience—us—capable of appreciating such subtlety as that of her dust-jacket photo. In the picture she wears her Rangers uniform, but her flowing hair and...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Not being much of a hockey fan, I thought for a couple of pages that Cleo Birdwell's "Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League" was the real thing. After all, why not? A woman has played professional football—albeit for only one play—and another has scrimmaged with major-league male basketball players. And there's Cleo Birdwell in a New York Rangers uniform on the back advertisement of "Amazons," looking big and raw-boned and every bit as tough as Anders Hedberg.

But the light began to dawn on me in the first few pages, when James Kinross, president of Madison Square Garden, says to the author: "Tell you the truth, Birdwell, I hate hockey. You...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Robert Nadeau

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Nadeau is concerned with the linkage between revolutionary advances in physics in the twentieth century that have significantly altered the "scientific" view of the universe and themes, presentations, form, and content in the modern novel.]

Not only are metaphysical assumptions … just as important and primary in the creative work of scientists as we have long known them to be in humanistic endeavors, [but also] the implications of new scientific theories … have often had unexpected impact upon those assumptions. It is … conceivable, although there is no precedent for it, that a radically new scientific paradigm, like that of the new physics, could prove so inconsistent with received...

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Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Don DeLillo is a formidable prose stylist; as Fred Allen once said of another literary craftsman, "He writes so well he makes me feel like putting my quill back in my goose." From time to time DeLillo thinks as keenly as he writes, and it is in these moments that The Names,… achieves its greatest power and interest. Unfortunately, though, these moments are concentrated in the first of the book's three principal sections, leaving the reader to plow through the remaining two-thirds with comparatively slight reward. The Names is an accomplished and intelligent novel, the work of a writer of clear if chilly brilliance, but it takes on too many themes and wanders in too many directions to find a coherent...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Charles Champlin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Don DeLillo is a mystery of a writer, one of the most critically acclaimed but narrowly known of all contemporary American novelists.

It is hard to say why. He is fearlessly original and uncompromising, but he is not an avant-gardist as I understand the term, trying to see just how private language can be, or how ambiguous.

DeLillo is immediate, intense and, in a word that critics may like too well, accessible. He also creates glorious prose that in its freshness, precision and eloquence is continuously exciting to read.

His newest novel, "The Names,"… may revise sharply upward the size of his readership. It stands above and out from any novel I've read in...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Don DeLillo occupies a relatively sun-lit corner of that school of American writers who might be called Occultists—not because they deal with the supernatural (though some occasionally do) but because they see hidden correspondences between phenomena of the most heterogenous kind. Everything is in code; sometimes the code is to be compared, structurally, with other codes, all of them equally filled with, or devoid of, significance. John Barth's monumental Letters is a good example of the genre. So are Pynchon's V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow. Often such fiction has a pronounced paranoid streak: not only codes but conspiracies abound, and for every conspiracy there is a...

(The entire section is 1342 words.)

Josh Rubins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For Don DeLillo,…, the most convincing moves into the surreal have seemed to spring from necessity rather than whim. The violent, tainted face of Sixties-and-after America, the lurid emptiness of modern urban life: DeLillo responds to these with such intense loathing and despair that his inventions—from the enigmatic football teams of End Zone to the nude storyteller and Hitler home movies of Running Dog—carry a whiff of danger, of fury kept just barely under control by a shift to metaphor. The resulting imagery can sometimes be off-putting or self-defeatingly private; the cosmic perspective—with every personal dysfunction turned into a sociopolitical disease—can be schematic, even adolescent....

(The entire section is 725 words.)