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What to Read

The brilliant. The pretty unbelievably good. The rough going. The completely avoidable. Our guide to the DeLillo oeuvre.

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(1) CLASSIC
Libra
Viking, 1988.
The Kennedy assassination, with its conspiracy theories, paranoia, Cold War overtones, and all-American mythology, was made for Don DeLillo. It allowed him to tackle the same themes as the more encyclopedic Underworld on a smaller, more focused scale. But that’s not why this is his masterpiece: The cipherlike figure of Lee Harvey Oswald, who sits squarely at the heart of Libra, is DeLillo’s greatest character.

White Noise
Viking, 1985.
DeLillo’s breakthrough success, arguably still his quintessential masterpiece, and the funniest and most sustained example of his talent. Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies, struggles with information overload, simulated disasters, an airborne toxic event, the most photographed barn in America, and a drug that neutralizes the fear of death. If you’re going to like DeLillo, this is the book that will make it happen.

Pafko at the Wall
Scribner, 2001.
On the 50th anniversary of the famous homer DeLillo narrates at the start of Underworld (which gave the Giants the pennant over the Dodgers), this first chapter was separately re-released. It was a good move; here is all that’s wonderful about DeLillo: the sweep of history mingled with the telling detail, blinding eloquence and vivid vernacular, J. Edgar Hoover visualizing nuclear Armageddon, and Jackie Gleason puking on Frank Sinatra’s oxfords.

The Names
Knopf, 1982.
Mixing DeLillo’s brilliant gloss on America’s place in the world in the seventies with a comic portrait of a failing marriage and Pynchonesque story of a mysterious, murderous cult, The Names is a summa of everything he’d learned up to that point, his last and greatest seventies novel, and one of his greatest novels, full stop. It’s not as distanced as almost any of his other books. Beneath the scrim of ironies, The Names is bursting with human passion.

(2) RECOMMENDED
Underworld
Scribner, 1997.
This is DeLillo’s meganovelbrilliant and only a little maddeninga great saga of connectedness, from the Cold War to cyberspace, with drop-in visits to a Texas serial killer and the New York seventies art scene. But it’s also over 800 pages long, with its most brilliant section indisputably right at the beginning (see Pafko at the Wall).

Players
Knopf, 1977.
DeLillo’s opening here is every bit as memorable as Pafko: a terrorist attack on a golf course being viewed without sound in the piano bar of a jetliner, while the pianist accompanies. It’s ridiculous, but also audacious and breathtaking. As is often the case with DeLillo, there are foreshadowings of 9/11 (the female protagonist works for the Grief Management Council in the bowels of the World Trade Center) and a similar set of questions about the troubling aesthetics of terrorism, set against a backdrop of glossy, empty Manhattan yuppie life.

Great Jones Street
Houghton Mifflin, 1973.
This is his rock-star book, with its central character, Bucky Wunderlick, supposedly based on Bob Dylan at the height of his anti-fame paranoia. Veering wildly from thing to nonsensical thing, it’s not an easy read. Terrorists, multinationals, cult members, drug dealers, journaliststhey’re all in here. You read it for the moments, like Bucky’s hilarious, flipped-out song lyrics, and for the evocation of sixties idealism collapsed into the muck of seventies excess, set amid the gloom of long-lost, ungentrified downtown Manhattan.

Mao II
Viking, 1991.
DeLillo at his most aphoristic; you wonder if he’d been reading too many poststructuralist interpretations of his work and decided to just skip the plot and cut straight to the theorizing. Less a novel than a series of crowd-scene set pieces linked by a reclusive novelist’s attempt to free a poet hostage, it contains his most extended thoughts on the relationship between fiction and terrorism.

(3) FOR FANS ONLY
Ratner’s Star
Knopf, 1976.
The culmination of DeLillo’s antic early work, and by far the most exorbitant of his novels, this is the picaresque story of a 14-year-old math genius who joins an international consortium of mad scientists decoding an alien message. The book is a disastrous masterpiece: desert hermits and basketball prodigies, red-ant metaphysics, a 500-page definition of the word science, and a Honduran bat-guano cartel called acronym. Enthusiastically recommended for serious fans; unthinkable for normal people.

Running Dog
Knopf, 1978.
Running Dog (the title refers to a Rolling Stonelike underground newspaper) is scary and paranoid and lighthearted and sex-obsessed simultaneously, but this time the mad scientist doesn’t quite get the formula right. The characters can feel a little stock, and the book never explodes out of itself to become its own universe. Still, its depiction of a politico-military-industrial complex spinning out of controland its use of Hitler as a comic plot deviceanticipates some of his best-loved later work.

Americana
Houghton Mifflin, 1971.
DeLillo’s first novel, published when he was 34, set the template for everything that followed: interchangeable characters embark on a shapeless story (this time a quasi-religious cross-country road trip)all narrated by a voice that sounds like God, slightly drunk, reading at random from an encyclopedia of modern philosophy. It’s all high jinks, cracking dialogue, and truckloads of aphorisms: This is the only country in the world that has funny violence. It takes centuries to invent the primitive.


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