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WHITE NOISE by Don DeLillo (Viking: $16.95; 324 pp.)

January 13, 1985|Richard Eder

Don DeLillo assembles a scene of contemporary American well-being out of the civilized customs of a college town; and contaminates it. The contamination comes literally from a cloud of noxious gas escaping from a ruptured railroad tanker. But the poisonous leak is related to something more general: the expedients of an encroaching technology whose means displace our ends and our humanity.

It is a novel of disintegration, of familiar things hijacked and spoiled, of nature, love and civility leached and estranged the way a familiar face grows strange in a dream. It is a novel of hairline prophecy, showing a desolate and all-too-believable future in the evidences of an all-too-recognizable present.

The wonder, though, is the sense of well-being that steals around us as we read it. It is the feeling of being in the best of hands. The author is Charon as a master mariner; his flame, like Quevedo's, knows how to swim the icy water. He brings us across the Styx in a lilting maneuver that is so adept that we can't help laughing as we go. Indeed, "White Noise," besides being prophetic and sad, is very funny.

Jack Gladney, his wife Babette, and four children by various marriages live in the bucolic Midwestern town of Blacksmith. They are a tender, nervy bunch; they cherish and surprise each other, and if DeLillo is about to inflict upon them the illnesses of the time, he portrays them first of all with an endearing warmth.

They live the normalcies of an academic community yet all these normalcies have a wild, parodic edge to them. Jack's academic specialty is Hitler; he gives courses in Advanced Nazism, and tutors his Nazism majors. He is ensconced, appropriately enough, in the department of American pop culture, where seminars are given on fast food, Elvis Presley, and car crashes in film. Babette, warm and upbeat, teaches adult education classes in posture, and in eating and drinking.

Babette is Jack's fourth wife; one of his previous wives lives in a Hindu ashram in Montana, another reviews fiction for the Central Intelligence Agency. A 14-year-old son, Heinrich, is preternaturally old with up-to-the-minute scientific knowledge; he is growing bald, and insists that any emotions he may feel are simply neural activity.

Information--the White Noise of the title--invades and displaces. Jack feels a sense of validation by higher authority when the electronic machine at his bank confirms that his balance is roughly what he supposes it to be. Shopping at the supermarket is a rite; and its profusion of spic-and-span arrays of food is a guarantee that society is still holding together. Objects are transient; when Jack passes the site of a garage sale he thinks of the items as "failed possessions."

Odd things occur. The school is evacuated one day because of a real or suspected toxic emanation; one of the teachers was reported to be rolling on the floor and speaking in foreign languages. Wilder, the Gladneys' toddler, cries for seven straight hours one day, and then stops suddenly. These are signs, omens.

And then a black cloud appears over the railroad yards, and the whole town finds itself heading towards evacuation sites. Gladney is initially skeptical. These things don't happen to professors, he says, "but to people in mobile homes in the scrubby parts of the country where the fish hatcheries are." But he gets out of his car to fill the tank, and in those three minutes absorbs enough of the toxic fumes to produce in himself what the technician in charge of measuring contamination calls "a situation."

The cloud passes, but life grows stranger. A private corporation moves into town to hold regular disaster drills. Jack's daughter arranges her calendar around the days when she has to be a corpse. The fear of dying that both Jack and Babette have bottled up inside them now emerges and twists their lives into strange and melodramatic patterns.

Toward the end, DeLillo lets the wildness go briefly out of control, and he has a theological argument between Gladney and a nun that falls fairly flat. But these are minor defects in a stunning book. The author has engaged us thoroughly with his Gladneys; we adopt them as our Noahs or Antrobuses; we register the damage when the contamination and alienation of a society past human control mark them; and we cheer their struggles to resist.

As the Gladney children rattle on knowledgeably about ionization and advanced biochemistry, Jack and Babette recite to each other the schoolroom verities of their youth: the three kinds of rock, the square of the hypotenuse, where the battle of Bunker Hill was really fought. There has been an avalanche of scientific discovery, Jack reflects, but people do not possess it the way they possess a much smaller body of knowledge in the past.

"What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air?" he wonders. "It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of the day. But nobody actually knows anything."

The toxic cloud, terrifyingly described, is the central symbol of humanity's inability to master its knowledge. But through tenderness, wit and a powerful irony, DeLillo has made every aspect of "White Noise" a moving and engrossing picture of a disquiet we seem likely to share in more and more.

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