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Merging Myth and History

Authors: Don DeLillo's novel, 'Underworld,' weaves baseball, the A-bomb and a boyhood spent in the Bronx.

October 08, 1997|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — At first glance, Don DeLillo seems like a character in one of his own books. Slender and watchful, the 60-year-old novelist hangs around the edges of his publisher's Rockefeller Center offices, silent as an afterthought.

Although he is dressed casually in black jeans, a denim shirt and a black tweed jacket, there is a formal air about him, and he speaks with a certain economy of language, pausing often to think about exactly what he wants to say.

Occasionally, he slips on a pair of black-framed glasses, but more often, he emphasizes his point with a precise gesture, a raised hand or eyebrow or a penetrating look.

DeLillo has been a major figure on the landscape of American fiction since the publication of his first novel, "Americana," in 1971. In that book and others, he has tracked the obsessions of postwar America, from terrorism and the John F. Kennedy assassination to college football, rock music and celebrity.

Working in a style that is deliberately elliptical--"the way I connect my writing to the world around me," he explains, "is through a kind of fragmentation, not really of sentences but somehow of feeling, of sensibility, a kind of obliqueness"--he explores the interstices between moments, the way image can at times overwhelm reality and echoes of history linger in the most isolated lives.

An exceedingly private man, DeLillo has long avoided interviews. But with publication this month of his 11th novel, "Underworld," he has decided to develop what he calls "a spirit of cooperation," motivated perhaps by a big advance from his publisher, Scribner.

"Underworld" is an 827-page epic that aspires to be nothing less than a psychic history of the Cold War era. Beginning with an extraordinary prologue that recasts the New York Giants-Brooklyn Dodgers playoff game of Oct. 3, 1951--the day Bobby Thomson hit his legendary home run--the book moves forward to the 1990s only to return slowly to the past.

In a recent New York Times Magazine essay, DeLillo wrote that he was inspired by something he noticed while looking up an account of the baseball game.

"Front page of the New York Times. Oct. 4, 1951. A pair of mated headlines," he writes. "Giants capture pennant"--this was the dramatic substance of the first headline. . . . "Soviets explode atomic bomb"--this was the ominous threat of the second."

It's classic DeLillo, the odd juxtaposition merging myth and history, and it allows him to create a book that encompasses both.

Bringing together an array of fictional characters and historic personalities, "Underworld" addresses baseball, nuclear weapons, waste management and videotape, as well as, for the first time, DeLillo's experience of growing up in the Bronx.

Question: In many ways, "Underworld" is your most personal novel, with the deepest connection to the circumstances of your own life. Why did you stay away from your personal history for so long, and why have you decided to touch on it now?

Answer: When I was writing short stories, as a 17-, 18-, 19-year-old, I wrote stories largely set in what is sometimes called the Italian Bronx, where I grew up. And they weren't very good. But it was way too soon for me to be able to write intelligently about such immediate experience, and over the next few years, my life changed in such a way that I never even thought about it--the last thing I wanted to do was write a novel about growing up in the Bronx. It's probably not a coincidence that my first novel is called "Americana."

In a curious way, I repeated the experience of my immigrant parents. They came to this country to realize opportunities they didn't have, and at some point I wanted to explore the wider culture, which meant, for the time being, forgetting about those narrow streets and that sort of diminishing experience, diminishing in time.

It wasn't for many years that I began to have a sense that I could write in a penetrating fashion about those years. It wasn't until I got to "Libra"--the first chapter of "Libra," specifically, in which Lee Oswald spends a year in the Bronx, which, of course, he did. This was my entree into his life and his consciousness, the fact that I lived six or seven blocks from where he lived for one year.

Q: "Libra" and "Underworld" have many elements in common, not least the way they rely on the interplay between fiction and history to bring their stories to life. In these books, it's as if there's a secret history operating in the cracks of official history.

A: That's part of the reason I call the book "Underworld," because I wanted to give a sense of underground history. It really starts in the prologue, with the ballgame. I began to feel, seeing those two headlines in the New York Times of Oct. 4, 1951, as if I were an archeologist who'd found two matching pieces of pottery in the dirt in Mesopotamia. I wondered what the symmetry might conceivably mean, and how important the ballgame was in relation to the Soviet atomic test.

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