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.
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
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.
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.
This is DeLillo’s meganovel—brilliant and only a little maddening—a 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).
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, journalists—they’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.
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
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 (the title refers to a Rolling Stone–like 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 control—and its use of Hitler as a comic plot device—anticipates some of his best-loved later work.
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.”
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.
Don DeLillo on His New Novel Falling Man
By Sam Anderson, Chris Bonanos, John Homans, Jared Hohlt, Boris Kachka, Hugo Lindgren, and Ben Williams.