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UNDERWORLD. By Don DeLillo . Scribner: 828 pp., $27.50

September 28, 1997|RICHARD EDER

Don DeLillo's writing lights up a very dark novel. His ice-locked Titanic goes down, picked out in an array of starbursts, bonfires and the cold ooze of laser illumination.

Titanic-sized and dazzling, "Underworld" is a panoramic vision of the United States over the past half century. Like John Dos Passos' 1930s trilogy "U.S.A.," its 827 pages are a montage of disparate lives and voices. Among them are a subway graffiti artist, a nun who patrols the drug-ravaged slums, J. Edgar Hoover, a collector of baseball memorabilia, a Mafia don, Lenny Bruce, a Russian gangster capitalist, a highway serial killer, a sex-club housewife and three executives in the growth industry of the late 1990s: waste disposal.

Garbage, some of it radioactive, is the desolate symbol for DeLillo of a country that after World War II abandoned its ground promise--a continental community growing from rooted humane and intimate diversities--to glut itself on power and a faceless juggernaut of material goods. As the millennium approaches, the book's two lead characters are each, in very different ways, high priests of waste.

One is Nick Shay, elder statesman of a worldwide waste disposal empire that owns a New Jersey landfill 25 times bigger than the Great Pyramid at Giza and a share in a politico-criminal Russian enterprise that destroys garbage from all over the world by underground atomic explosions.

Disposal of a different kind is presided over by Klara Sax, a world-famous conceptual artist who, in her 70s, is at work on a giant earthwork project. Several hundred derelict B-52 bombers, onetime carriers of atomic weapons, are set out on an abandoned nuclear testing ground in New Mexico. Covered by worldwide press and television, hundreds of volunteers sandblast and spray them in gaudy colors.

The connection is intimate: Over the half century, thousands of trillions of dollars worth of both peacetime consumption and Cold War Armageddon have ended up as junk. Licensed by capitalism's bottom line, Nick profits, though he gets depressed. Licensed by art's empyrean presumption, Klara floats ghastly and free.

So far, this is a large-scale variation on DeLillo's spectacular treatments of American public nightmares in such works as "White Noise" and "Mao II." But it is only one part, and not the most powerful, of the book's powerful two-stroke engine. Nick and Klara, airy emblematic titans of our time, came out of the same teeming blue-collar, Italian-Irish neighborhood in the Bronx of the 1950s. It is a place all but gone today and all but unimaginable.

"Underworld" places on one side the bleak disconnections of those who run or simply float up with the economic and social machineries of our times. On the other side are its victims and dissidents. It also contrasts the inflated present and the modest human past. There is, for example, Nick as international waste executive and Nick as a Bronx neighborhood kid; and Klara as a Louise Nevelson-like celebrity and Klara as a restless Bronx housewife.

The juxtapositions are drastic, almost biblical. Blessed are the poor in spirit, is DeLillo's intimation, and also blessed is the humble past. "Underworld's" most astonishing writing, its most splendid talk, its most carnally living and vivid humanity are set in the Bronx of the 1950s and among the marginal eccentrics of today. His contemporary achievers are thin, impalpable, ghostly. It is as if they had been abducted by extraplanetary agents--for DeLillo, the modern world is extraplanetary--and deprived of their souls.

"Underworld" begins with a bravura section that heralds the split. It is the final game of the 1951 National League pennant race in which the New York (still) Giants came from behind in the ninth inning to defeat the Brooklyn (still) Dodgers with Bobby Thomson's three-run homer. It was dubbed "the shot heard 'round the world," but DeLillo makes it a shot that marks the start of a much grimmer and less innocent world.

He gets the play and the hysteria, but he focuses on two spectators. One is Cotter, a Harlem 12-year-old who has jumped the turnstiles to get in and manages to grab the Thomson ball. The other is J. Edgar Hoover, watching with his pals Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Toots Shor.

An aide whispers that the Russians have detonated an atom bomb. Hoover, portrayed with a clammy creepiness that DeLillo did not invent but wields formidably, feels a stab of exhilaration: as if the vague forces of evil arrayed against him had suddenly cohered and been made evident.

Two shots heard 'round the world, and they will be twinned on front pages. It is the book's divide: One way points ahead to the Cold War and the alienating future, the other back to the life of the common people. Here as elsewhere, the author connects everything: The nuclear core of a bomb is the same size as a regulation baseball.

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