Don DeLillo: Mao II & Underworld
By Don DeLillo; Edited by Mark Osteen
Library of America; hardcover, 1100 pages; $42.50
The Library of America's DeLillo edition began with Three Novels of the 1980s, and it continues with this volume, DeLillo: Mao II and Underworld (LOA #374), which features two mid-career masterpieces from the 1990s, and are published with new prefaces from the author.
These two extraordinary novels represent the peak of this modern master's career. Mao II, which was published in 1991, won the PEN/Faulker Award, and Underworld, from 1997, which was his magnum opus and a book that ranks among the greatest of twentieth-century novels.
In Mao II, the celebrated novelist Bill Gray has withdrawn into seclusion, and his everyday affairs are managed by a pair of assistants. Even though he has built a protective solitude, he still finds himself struggling, both with pills and a novel he can't complete.
When a Swedish photographer who specializes in author portraits finishes, he shakes off his world-weariness, and he soon embarks on an unlikely journey to help broker the release of a poet that is being held by terrorists in Beirut.
Underworld is DeLillo's magnum opus, a sprawling, ambitious, and moving panorama of the postwar American experience. It opens with a re-imagining of one of the greatest moments in sports history, the 1951 playoff between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants that ended with the "shot heard 'round the world' home run by the Giants' Bobby Thomson.
DeLillo juxtaposes the excitement of the game with something more momentous, the announcement of the Soviets' first atomic test. This was inspired by the New York Times front page the next day that said "Giants capture pennant/Soviets explode atomic bomb." This coincidence initiates a kaleidoscopic saga that is weaved across four decades, shuttling back and forth through time and mixing fictional characters with historical figures, including comedian Lenny Bruce and the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover.
This is a novel that is both a profound meditation on our contemporary condition and a deeply personal book for the author, who draws poignantly on his his memories of growing up in The Bronx.
In this excerpt from the Preface, written in 2022, DeLillo writes: "Follow the baseball.
It took me five years to write this novel, autumn 1991 to autumn 1996, and as I revisit random pages I continue to be surprised by what I find there.
A crucial memory is that I wrote for some weeks in chronological order than then decided, in a flash, to allow the narrative to leap into the future and then work its way slowly back toward thre beginning.
This was the moment that made the novel.
And as I re-read I find that the words on a page tend to expand into dense memories of research journeys both local and far-flung.
The baseball game, famous at the time, took place at the old Polo Grounds in Harlem on October 3, 1951, and my self-appointed task as a novelist, forty years later, sent me to local streets where the ballpark once stood. I retraced the fictional path of the teenage boy who retrieved the baseball, 'the shot heard 'round the world,' taking notes as I walked, remembering the pitcher, Ralph Branca, throwing to the hitter, Bobby Thomson - the kind of public event in which people tend to recall where they were when it happened.
(I was in a dentist's chair, mouth crammed with utensils, listening to the radio broadcast in the outer office, patients and staff cheering the dramatic outcome.)
But what happened to the baseball itself when it entered the stands? No one ever convincingly claimed possession but in the novel there it is, carrying the narrative along - sought after, borrowed, sold, stolen, ending up finally on a bookshelf in a quiet Arizona suburb.
I spent time in the Southwest desert and elsewhere, then back to the Bronx neighborhood of my early years, memories flooding back, pleasurably - the grocery store, the barber shop, the grammar school, the poolroom, the movie theater. And reading these pages again I sometimes forget that this is fiction.
The bus we took to the beach, the girls jumping rope, the rooftop summers, the street games, the bowling alley.
Follow the baseball."
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