Lengthy, jazzy classic is like a game of chess


Lengthy, jazzy classic is like a game of chess

JOAN HAMBIDGE looks back on a literary highlight: Don DeLillo's novel that is thicker than a Bible and has foreseen so many world events.


MOST of our longings go unfulfilled. This is the word’s wistful implication — a desire for something lost or fled or otherwise out of reach (page 803).


In 2016, Don DeLillo was honoured with a three-day congress on his work in Paris: Don DeLillo: Fiction Rescues History.

Underworld (more than 800 pages) tells the story of Nick Shay (who grew up in the Bronx), a “waste management" manager. Waste and recycling are the most important codes here. The novel is about the history of the baseball game that ended in victory for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 3, 1951. (Shay in Celtic, by the way, means gift.) But Shay is also engaged in his own micro-history placed in juxtaposition with the larger world.

The “shot heard 'round the world": in DeLillo's account, the ball Bobby Thomson hit for his home run is caught by Cotter Martin, a young black supporter, while J Edgar Hoover watches from the stands. At the same time, the first hydrogen bomb is being tested in the Soviet Union.

DeLillo fictionalises the game and the politics of the day. Micro versus macro history is examined. Shay's wife cheats on him, to boot. Personal uncertainties versus political turmoil.

This explains the style. And as with all great novelists, you can flip open DeLillo's book on any page and just read for the style:

“The sky is low and gray, the roily gray of sliding surf.” (11)

“He watched an aproned boy wrap the fish in a major headline.” (661)

We can see the influence of jazz in the rhythm of his prose, the style (the reversal of verb and subject) and different stories that eventually come together.

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Part I: Shay was born in the Bronx in the Fifties and in the Nineties he is working in Arizona. His wife Marian cheats on him with his colleague, Brian Glassic.

This is a story about abandonment. Nick's father abandoned him but Nick doesn't want to accept the hard facts. He convinces himself that his father was killed by the mafia.

In Part II, we read about the affair and how Nick buys the 1951 baseball from one Marvin Lundy in New York. There is a description of the nun, Sister Edgar, Nick's teacher, who now cares for the homeless.

In Part III (1978), Nick is at a congress in the Mojave Desert, with references again to Lundy's search for the baseball. We also meet Donna.

Volume IV (1974) is about Klara Sax, a New York artist, and Nick's brother, Matt Shay, a researcher at a weapons programme in New Mexico.

Part V is set in the Fifties and Sixties. We read about Nick's life in juvenile prison, his meeting with his future wife. Lenny Bruce, the comedian, is present here with his sharp humour and Cotter Martin's father sells the baseball to Charles Wainwright.

In Part VI, the most poignant passage in the novel, we read how Nick Shay loses control after his father leaves them. And, accidentally, causes the death of his friend George Manza.

In the epilogue, there is a confrontation between Nick and Brian Glassic over the affair with Marian. Nick decides to stay with his wife. It is set in Kazakhstan. And here we experience two shocking incidents with a symbolic impact: the debris that can cause a nuclear explosion and the rape and murder of Esmeralda in the Bronx. Her image appears on a billboard and after this Sister Edgar dies. A biblical miracle is implied here.


Look at the chapter divisions such as The Prologue — The Triumph of Death; Part I — Long Tall Sally; Part II — Elegy for Left Hand Alone; Epilogue — Das Kapital.

Part VI is called Arrangement in Gray and Black, Part IV Cocksucker Blues. Part III is The Cloud of Unknowing, Part V Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry.

Music and card games. One can also approach the novel unchronologically.

The novel is written in a kind of circular passage with references to history and politics. It ends with a yearning: peace.

There are touching descriptions that stay with the reader. Among other things, how waiters are perceived and people who age so you don't recognise them right away. Chess is seen as an aggressive game (212). And this novel is divided into squares. A kind of chess game with the reader?

The novel also explores the impact of conspiracy theories and how history was written on the dollar note (354).

The title activates the unconscious and the subterfuge that determines everything and makes it proper. The author claims the title refers to radioactive remains buried underground and to Pluto, the god of the dead. The front page of the New York Times on October 4, 1951, reportedly inspired this novel.


On the cover of my copy, this timeless book is praised by Salman Rushdie and Michael Ondaatje, two outstanding novelists. It remains relevant in terms of tensions, wars and how such events irrevocably change people's lives.

On the cover: New York (buildings), a church, the cross, and to the right a dove flying away.

The symbolism is ominously strong.

It appeared in 1997. And such a lot has happened since then…

♦ VWB ♦

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