The Rear-View Mirror: Don DeLillo (1936)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Two weeks ago, I sang the praises of Raymond Carver’s short stories, their lean, almost terse language. If that is way, way too short for you, then you might feel right at home in some of the novels by Don DeLillo (born in 1936), the longest of which is a weighty tome called Underworld, published in 1997 and clocking in at a whopping 827 pages, something that some of my university tutors called a two-hander. It’s true, you can’t read it in bed, holding it over your face, because if you let it fall, you die.

Underworld tells the story of a dissolving marriage, the childhood, youth and adult life of one Nick Shay. Everything emanates from there: the novel contains conversations about art, religion and society; there is a murderer on the loose, and there are single citizens who pretend to be amateur sleuths, trying to catch him. There are racial tensions, family quarrels, environmental problems – and baseball. Underworld started out, incredibly, as a novella called Pafko at the Wall, a version of which was published independently and is now the novel’s prologue (which takes up 60 pages alone). The actor Jackie Gleason and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover are sitting in the audience of an important baseball game, while Frank Sinatra hovers about, and prints of Pieter Bruegel’s Triumph of Death are raining down on them. And with the Bruegel, I was hooked. The game has gone down in baseball history because it ended with The Shot heard around the World. The baseball in question is now lost, but in the novel, it goes from character to character, and since the novel is not told in a chronological manner, you have to piece together the ball’s trajectory yourself.

Carver and DeLillo are not diametrically opposed, however; both are very American writers in their own way, but while Carver keeps it short and sweet, DeLillo takes detours and is able to fill a whole canvas with interesting stuff happening everywhere. Because of the novel’s joy in jumping back and forth in time, it’s not always easy to remember a character from 200 pages ago, but it’s worth the slow read. It’s like someone once told me when I was apprehensive to start Infinite Jest: look at it as a trip, and enjoy it. That was good advice, and it works for Underworld, too.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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