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The opening chapter of Don DeLillo’s Underworld might be the single best thing I have ever read

September 13, 2015

“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”

The opening line of underworldDon DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld signals a panoramic investigation of the beginning of the end of the American century, that period from 1950-2000 where the USA transformed global economics and politics and exported an optimism and faith in the future through popular culture and sports. It also juxtaposes the paranoia and uncertainty of America during and after the Cold War, the lurch to the right and the horror of the late 60s onwards.

It is also one of the greatest opening lines of any book I have read.

The opening chapter, ‘The Triumph of Death’, originally published as the novella Pafko at the Wall, is a bravura 60 page exhibition of descriptive narrative which is almost unequalled in any literary novel I have read. It vividly introduces the great themes of the novel: American optimism, popular cultural mythology, mass production, cultural and material waste, and collective popular memory framed within a description of a baseball  match in 1951.

It is no ordinary baseball match but one of those that is ingrained in the American psyche: the National League pennant match in which the New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers 5-4 with a last gasp three run home run known as ‘The Shot Heard Around The World’. The ball from the game is partly the subject of the narrative as it is stolen by the teenager Cotter Martin as it flies into the stands and is then sold and passed down through generations.

DeLillo’s spectacularly atmospheric recreation of the sights, sounds and smells of a big sporting occasion is remarkable. The smells of cigarette smoke and hot dogs in the seats and the urine of the toilets accompanies the sounds of the radio announcer’s urgent commentary, the cries of food and drink vendors and the waves of fervour and tension in the crowd.

Amid this there are beautiful, almost Joycean, cameos by some of the most important cultural and political figures in late 20th Century American life: Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason watch the game with the latter gorging so many hot dogs and so much booze that he vomits on the floor and over Ol’ Blue Eyes’ shoes. J. Edgar Hoover awkwardly sits with his neuroses nearby, wanting acceptance from these great alpha males, and bringing the paranoia of outsiders and change that would characterise American politics and global policy from then until now.

Their inclusion is a terrific framing for the rest of the novel which self-consciously addresses themes of the Great American Novel: cultural exhaustion, waste and decay, the death of optimism and the social compact and the rise of the self. It is necessary that it begins in DeLillo’s home city of New York, the cultural and economic capital of the USA and the entry point for immigrants.

However, more importantly, and perhaps drawing inspiration from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, it is the cascade of adverts on magazine pages chucked by the crowd that is the most important leit motif. The pages ripped from magazines, perhaps one of the most pertinent symbols of American consumerism in the 20th Century in themselves, carry adverts for cars, white goods, cigarettes, groceries, booze and a host of the products that symbolized the American Dream of the 1950s and 1960s. Their advertising slogans drift through the floodlights like a balletic social history in the air. They are the symbols of mass production and consumerism that framed America’s commercial and cultural ascent from the end of WWII to the 1980s. They cascade from the stands at the end of the match, filtering to the ground slowly like the newspaper headlines in Citizen Kane.

They symbolize the beginning of the end of this period of unheralded financial prosperity in a time of huge political uncertainty – the Cold War is gearing up (cue Mr Hoover) and the Bay of Pigs is a decade away. Rock and roll is four or five years off and any sense of civil rights for blacks or women’s equality are nowhere near the floodlit diamond.

It is an intensely male history of America that we get in this chapter – there are very few women of any kind and none with an significant input. The problems of racial divides and segregation are briefly apparent, but largely this is about the passing of a gloriously optimistic time for the white American man.

A final point to note is the book’s original 1997 cover which carried an unnervingly prescient photograph of the World Trade Centre wreathed in fog and with a bird flying towards it by the modernist photographer André Kertész. It unknowingly presaged the other event that symbolised the new America: September 11, 2001. It is not hard to see why the book was immensely popular during the Bush administration and War on Terror.

Ultimately, Underworld is a book about what America was, or what we, in a halcyon sense, mis-remember it as. This opening chapter identifies the role of baseball and popular culture in the construction of the dream that held sway before Vietnam, the counter culture and economic uncertainty dismantled it. The final two paragraphs are a wonderful lament for an age of glory and optimistic memory:

“All the fragments of the afternoon collect around his airborne form. Shouts, bat-cracks, full bladders and stray yawns, the sand-grain manyness of things that can’t be counted.

It is all falling indelibly into the past.”

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