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Underworld: A Novel

A book by Don DeLillo

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Don DeLillo's "Underworld" - the story of a baseball and much more

  • Jul 2, 2011
When I was reading “Underworld” by Don DeLillo (1997), someone asked what it was about. I said, “it’s about a baseball.” I got a look of mild annoyance and disbelief – after all, the book is 827 pages long. Specifically, it’s about the baseball thrown by Ralph Branca and hit into the left field stands by Bobby Thompson at the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951 to give the New York Giants the pennant that year over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Personally, I was in Pittsburgh at the time and wouldn’t turn one year old until a couple of weeks after that game, but years later I find myself a Los Angeles Dodgers fan who remembers (and has kept the ticket stub from) a game at Chavez Ravine on May 11, 1963 when Sandy Koufax pitched a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants. For some of us, baseball is a nostalgic conduit to childhood. Maybe I should have said the book is about a young fictional Dodger fan named Nick Shay who grew up as an Italian Catholic kid in Brooklyn at that time (much like DeLillo himself). Actually, it’s pretty much about the entire last half the 20th century – specifically the effect of the Cold War on the American psyche. In fact, the October 5, 1997 NY Times review of the book by Martin Amis was subtitled, “How America learned to stop worrying and love the bomb” after Dr. Strangelove, the famous Kubrick film noir from 1964. In a September 16, 1997 NY times review, Michiko Kakutani says the book is about “both the hard, bright world of public events and the more subterranean world of private emotions in which individuals are connected by a secret calculus of hope and loss. It is the story of one man, one family, but it is also the story of what happened to America in the second half of the 20th century.”

 The novel is about the contemporaneous chaos of life and the interconnectedness of events, personal and political. Nick Shay’s father Jimmy Costanza walked out one night for a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes and never came back. As Nick tries to make sense of this central event in his life, we get a major history lesson including America’s atomic bomb testing in New Mexico, the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War. It’s a challenging book to read in the way it jumps back and forth in time, from character to character, and from story line to story line without warning, sometimes in the middle of a page. The baseball travels through time too. It’s initially retrieved by Cotter Martin, a kid who plays hooky from school to “crash the gate” and attend the famous game. His father Manx sells the ball for $32.45 to advertising executive Charles Wainwright while Wainwright is waiting in line with his son Chuckie Jr to get tickets to the World Series. Years later, Nick buys the ball for 1,000 times that amount from the compulsive baseball memorabilia hound, Marvin Lundy. The ball serves as a touchstone for Nick, bringing him back to his childhood in Brooklyn - back to that lost game and the loss of his father. We also have the story of Nick’s brother Matty who was a chess prodigy tutored by high school teacher Albert Bronzini, married at the time to Klara Sax with whom Nick has a brief affair when he is just 17. The second section of the book finds Nick visiting with the aging artist Klara as she is in the southwest preparing to paint a fleet of aging B52 bombers as an art project (one of the bombers with the moniker “Long Tall Sally” is the same one on which Chuckie Wainwright Jr served as navigator during the Vietnam War). Like America itself during the Cold War, the characters in the book are unsettled and jumpy. Klara hears the snapping of the Cinzano awnings at outdoor cafes in New York and thinks she is hearing gunshots, and Matty Shay and his girlfriend Janet Urbaniak jump at the sonic boom of jets flying overhead as they drive through the New Mexico desert, thinking they’re in the midst of a nuclear test. The disturbed Texas highway shooter Richard Henry Gilkey kills randomly, the death of one of his victims being caught on a child’s video camera – an unresolved plot line reminiscent of the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, which itself also makes a cameo appearance in the book. It’s not until nearly the end of the book that we finally find out how young Nick came to shoot and kill George (the waiter) Manza – an event that haunts the story of Nick’s life. The depth and breadth of the individual human experience conveyed in the book more than makes up for any minor frustration and disappointment associated with unresolved plot lines and the anti-climactic circumstances of George Manza’s death. Writing about “Underworld” in The Guardian (UK) in 1998, William Boyd says, “… this is what the novel can do, and indeed does, better than any other art form it gets the human condition, it skewers and fixes it in all its richness and squalor unlike anything else.”
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review by . June 13, 2008
This took me two weeks, and I wondered if it'd be worth the effort. The heft of the book had discouraged me before, but the beginning bravura panorama of the Polo Grounds game and the closing pages with a less ostentatious, but surprisingly thought-provoking scene also in a New York where crowds gather for another miracle does manage to bookend this massive work satisfactorily. The challenges lie in what comes between, seven hundred pages of characters who you constantly shuffle among, unsure often …
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Steve DiBartola ()
Ranked #152
I was invited to join Lunch by one of the developers, who apparently read some reviews I posted on Library Thing. My interests are books, music, and movies. I enjoy both classical and contemporary fiction, … more
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While Eisenstein documented the forces of totalitarianism and Stalinism upon the faces of the Russian peoples, DeLillo offers a stunning, at times overwhelming, document of the twin forces of the cold war and American culture, compelling that "swerve from evenness" in which he finds events and people both wondrous and horrifying.Underworldopens with a breathlessly graceful prologue set during the final game of the Giants-Dodgers pennant race in 1951. Written in what DeLillo calls "super-omniscience" the sentences sweep from young Cotter Martin as he jumps the gate to the press box, soars over the radio waves, runs out to the diamond, slides in on a fast ball, pops into the stands where J. Edgar Hoover is sitting with a drunken Jackie Gleason and a splenetic Frank Sinatra, and learns of the Soviet Union's second detonation of a nuclear bomb. It's an absolutely thrilling literary moment. When Bobby Thomson hits Branca's pitch into the outstretched hand of Cotter--the "shot heard around the world"--and Jackie Gleason pukes on Sinatra's shoes, the events of the next few decades are set in motion, all threaded together by the baseball as it passes from hand to hand.

"It's all falling indelibly into the past," writes DeLillo, a past that he carefully recalls and reconstructs with acute grace. Jump from Giants Stadium to the Nevada desert in 1992, where Nick Shay, who now owns the baseball, reunites with the artist Kara Sax. They had been ...

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ISBN-10: 0684848155
ISBN-13: 978-0684848150
Author: Don DeLillo
Publisher: Scribner

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