Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
There’s little plot to speak of in this second novel, just a series of hilarious riffs on the parallels between football and nuclear war. That’s not the most original comparison to draw, and the ending—or rather, the lack of one—makes it an ultimately unsatisfying read. But this is where DeLillo’s trademark hyperintellectualized, blankly ironic dialogue makes its debut.
Rinehart and Winston, 1980.
The subtitle of this pseudonymous novel (co-written with Sue Buck) is “An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League,” and the name on the jacket is “Cleo Birdwell.” Cleo, having just broken in with the Rangers, fools around with fellow players and studies the inspirational works of a North African pop philosopher. It’s a deadpan and funny book, but a very odd one, maybe because the junkiness of the form being satirized meshes so strangely with DeLillo’s high-pith-quotient dialogue.
Double Play, 2005.
DeLillo’s only movie is total art-house fare, starring Michael Keaton as a playwright consumed with an approaching production as well as his beloved Red Sox, who will soon blow the 1986 World Series. The author of Underworld is excellent on baseball and the obsessions of fandom. He gets help from Keaton, who genuinely seems on the brink of coming unglued. But the jerky, episodic structure wears thin, as does the languid soundtrack by Yo La Tengo and, most fatally, Robert Downey Jr., whose performance as a vicious theater critic is ridiculous.
The Body Artist
Time has only slightly softened the puzzled disappointment that greeted this wispy follow-up to Underworld. The titular performer, a recent widow, finds a disturbed little man in her seaside house who can reproduce exactly the voice of her dead filmmaker husband. The subject and the koan-pocked prose, alternately deadening and incantatory, reads like a dessicated fictionalization of The Year of Magical Thinking.
Imagine an Ayn Rand hero in a minimalist rendering of Ulysses that morphs into an urban thriller. Maybe that’s what DeLillo was trying to do, but we’ll never know. The airless style seems a logical progression (or regression) from The Body Artist, but the absurd adventures of limousine-ensconced billionaire Eric Packer, and his watered-down Fukuyama musings, make even that novella’s most tedious bits seem lively by comparison.
The Day Room, 1987; Valparaiso, 1999; Love-Lies-Bleeding, 2006.
DeLillo is not a natural dramatist. In these plays, he perfects the art of characters talking past each other and around each other— anything but to each other. There are bits of mordant humor, particularly in Valparaiso, and the dialogue is nothing if not taut. But there is little human warmth or empathy anywhere, the plots don’t matter, and, in the end, they come off as what-the-hell literary experiments more than fully realized works.