Saturday, August 22, 2009

True Americana

There's really no need to mention a specific list. Whether one is discussing the essential postmodern authors, the essential American writers of the past thirty or so years, or an international list, Don DeLillo is virtually guaranteed placement anywhere. Personally, I've probably included him on some of my own lists, but the more I think about him, I don't have that much of his bibliography checked off on my reading lists. I read his debut novel, Americana, roughly six years ago. My memory of it is very, very sketchy, but I clearly remember not being terribly impressed (then again, I wasn't as well read at that time). White Noise followed, and it immediately restored my faith in DeLillo's warranted hype and acclaim. Cosmopolis lost me after about forty pages, and until recently, Underworld has held a noticeable place on my bookshelf; the only problem being, I've kept putting it off, occasionally reading the prologue, and feeling guilty that such an essential text was collecting dust. I've owned the book for a few years, and I've finally given it the proper time and attention.

The tidy description of Underworld is that the novel is a metaphor of American life and ideals following World War II, during the Cold War, and the formative years following both conflicts. The story revolves around two people, Nick Shay and Klara Sax, who knew each other very briefly and sexually when he was a teenager and she was a young mother. They reunite just as briefly in the beginning of the story, politely and maturely, and their interactions hint at a much longer, intertwining history:

"'I thought I owed us this visit. Whatever that means,' I said.
'I know what it means. You feel a loyalty. The past brings out our patriotism, you know? We want to feel an allegiance. It's the one undivided allegiance, to all those people and things.'
'And it gets stronger.'
'Sometimes I think everything I've done since those years, everything around me in fact, I don't know if you feel this way but everything is vaguely--what--fictitious (DeLillo 73).'"

Klara is an esteemed artist, and Nick is a waste management official. The difference in these occupations and lifestyles is manifested in the differences in their lives and histories, along with a supporting cast of dozens, sketched and crafted in staggering detail by DeLillo. Whether directly or through varying degrees of separation, the characters are connected by the travels of a baseball, the ball hit by Bobby Thomson off of Ralph Branca, a home run that gave the New York Giants the 1951 pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers. It's known as "The Shot Heard 'Round the World," arguably one of the most famous moments in American sports history. This most American of moments, in the most American sport, is the launching pad for the myriad of events and personalities that follow.

"Pafko at the wall. Then he's looking up. People thinking where's the ball. The scant delay, the stay in time that lasts a hairsbreadth. And Cotter standing in section 35 watching the ball come in his direction. He feels his body turn to smoke. He loses sight of the ball when it climbs above the overhang and he thinks it will land in the upper deck. But before he can smile or shout or bash his neighbor on the arm. Before the moment can overwhelm him, the ball appears again, stitches visibly spinning, that's how near it hits, banging at an angle off a pillar--hands flashing everywhere (42)."

Cotter Martin is the first of a few people to have possession of this baseball, but the above passage is a terrific example of DeLillo's ability to break down such a monumental point of history into a private, reflexive moment of one person. In addition, moments that register as seemingly private on the outside are given just as much detail, rendering them much larger than they actually are. This may seem like a catch-22, but DeLillo's eye for detail makes the small seem large and the large seem small. An example of this expansion:

"He [Brian Glassic, an associate of Nick's] also did it as a provocation. Brian believed I was safely encased, solid, with a house and family folded around me, surer than he was, older but also physically superior, physically fit, a man of hardier stuff, this was his own stated theme--a man who keeps his counsel. And it greatly fazed him, it made him want to chip away, make boyish forays, place claims on my attention (108)."

During my first attempt at Underworld those years back, I remember being dismayed by fictional accounts of famous personalities, namely Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and J. Edgar Hoover watching the Giants/Dodgers game together. At the time, I felt that DeLillo included them as caricatures of sorts, quintessential 1950s representations, but now, the famous inclusions seem essential. After all, what is a true look at postwar America, imagined or otherwise, without the factor of famous power or celebrity? There are several imagined stand up routines performed by Lenny Bruce later in the book, which serves as yet another terrific metaphor. Bruce was the ultimate counterculture icon of his time, and his audience, both in real life and the novel, were allegorical mixes of people who understood the honesty of what he said, and people who either strongly opposed this frankness or were not accustomed to hearing it spoken aloud. One might subconsciously think that George Carlin (for example) could have been used just as easily as Bruce, but Carlin didn't suffer the same amount of backlash, scrutiny, and private investigations.

The aforementioned occupational differences between Nick and Klara may seem obvious, but there's much more that lies below the surface, even literally, in Nick's line of work in waste management. A running idea is that the history of any given culture or civilization, not just America, can be studied and explained by what its inhabitants threw away or buried.

"[Brian] looked at all that soaring garbage and knew for the first time what his job was all about. Not engineering or transportation or source reduction. He dealt in human behavior, people's habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences but their kindness too, their generosity, and the question was how to keep this mass metabolism from overwhelming us (184)."

A sampling of Klara's mentality as an artist:

"Art in which the moment is heroic, American art, the do-it-now, the fuck-the-past--she could not follow that. She could look at it and respect it, envy it, even, in a way, but not, herself, place hand to object and make some furious now, some brilliant jack-off gesture that asserts an independence (377)."

Obviously, there are several passages, characters, and plot points that I haven't given the proper attention in this essay, but the relationship between Nick and Klara, and the paths in which their lives go in the novel, is one of the better interpretations of American postwar history, the mixing of (and independence of) American business classes and creative classes. As they grow older, the two characters seem to switch roles and personalities. Nick is a rebellious teen, and Klara is a semi-stable housewife. As we see Nick as an adult, his outward persona appears stable, whereas Klara's life calling is one that would seem to naturally lend itself to rebellious qualities. The beauty of DeLillo's creation is that neither one fits comfortably into occupational stereotypes, and while the two are separated for most of the book, there's a definite understanding of how they've affected each other. They're both flawed, passionate, and committed, and despite their independence, they would not be who they are without the other, even if the relationship is neither close, conventional, or ongoing.

Work Cited:
DeLillo, Don. Underworld. Copyright 1997 by Don DeLillo.

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