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Underworld [Hardcover]

Don DeLillo
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (287 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 3 1997

Our lives, our half century.

Nick Shay and Klara Sax knew each other once, intimately, and they meet again in the American desert. He is trying to outdistance the crucial events of his early life, haunted by the hard logic of loss and by the echo of a gunshot in a basement room. She is an artist who has made a blood struggle for independence.

Don DeLillo's mesmerizing novel opens with a legendary baseball game played in New York in 1951. The glorious outcome -- the home run that wins the game is called the Shot Heard Round the World -- shades into the grim news that the Soviet Union has just tested an atomic bomb.

The baseball itself, fought over and scuffed, generates the narrative that follows. It takes the reader deeply into the lives of Nick and Klara and into modern memory and the soul of American culture -- from Bronx tenements to grand ballrooms to a B-52 bombing raid over Vietnam.

A generation's master spirits come and go. Lennny Bruce cracking desperate jokes, Mick Jagger with his devil strut, J. Edgar Hoover in a sexy leather mask. And flashing in the margins of ordinary life are the curiously connectecd materials of the culture. Condoms, bombs, Chevy Bel Airs and miracle sites on the Web.

Underworld is a story of men and women together and apart, seen in deep clear detail and in stadium-sized panoramas, shadowed throughout by the overarching conflict of the Cold War. It is a novel that accepts every challenge of these extraordinary times -- Don DeLillo's greatest and most powerful work of fiction.

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While Eisenstein documented the forces of totalitarianism and Stalinism upon the faces of the Russian peoples, DeLillo offers a stunning, at times overwhelming, document of the twin forces of the cold war and American culture, compelling that "swerve from evenness" in which he finds events and people both wondrous and horrifying. Underworld opens with a breathlessly graceful prologue set during the final game of the Giants-Dodgers pennant race in 1951. Written in what DeLillo calls "super-omniscience" the sentences sweep from young Cotter Martin as he jumps the gate to the press box, soars over the radio waves, runs out to the diamond, slides in on a fast ball, pops into the stands where J. Edgar Hoover is sitting with a drunken Jackie Gleason and a splenetic Frank Sinatra, and learns of the Soviet Union's second detonation of a nuclear bomb. It's an absolutely thrilling literary moment. When Bobby Thomson hits Branca's pitch into the outstretched hand of Cotter--the "shot heard around the world"--and Jackie Gleason pukes on Sinatra's shoes, the events of the next few decades are set in motion, all threaded together by the baseball as it passes from hand to hand.

"It's all falling indelibly into the past," writes DeLillo, a past that he carefully recalls and reconstructs with acute grace. Jump from Giants Stadium to the Nevada desert in 1992, where Nick Shay, who now owns the baseball, reunites with the artist Kara Sax. They had been brief and unlikely lovers 40 years before, and it is largely through the events, spinoffs, and coincidental encounters of their pasts that DeLillo filters the Cold War experience. He believes that "global events may alter how we live in the smallest ways," and as the book steps back in time to 1951, over the following 800-odd pages, we see just how those events alter lives. This reverse narrative allows the author to strip away the detritus of history and pop culture until we get to the story's pure elements: the bomb, the baseball, and the Bronx. In an epilogue as breathless and stunning as the prologue, DeLillo fast-forwards to a near future in which ruthless capitalism, the Internet, and a new, hushed faith have replaced the Cold War's blend of dread and euphoria.

Through fragments and interlaced stories--including those of highway killers, artists, celebrities, conspiracists, gangsters, nuns, and sundry others--DeLillo creates a fragile web of connected experience, a communal Zeitgeist that encompasses the messy whole of five decades of American life, wonderfully distilled.

From Library Journal

On October 3, 1951, there occurred two "shots heard round the world"?Bobby Thomson's last-minute homer, which sent the N.Y. Giants into the World Series, and a Soviet atomic bomb test. The fallout from these two events provides the nexus for this sagalike rumination on the last 50 years of American cultural history. DeLillo's opening depiction of the scene at the N.Y. Polo Grounds that day is masterly. Unfortunately, sustaining the initial brilliance proves difficult. There are some marvelously drawn characters?Sister Edgar, a vision-seeking nun of the old school; Ismael, a ghetto-based graffiti artist and budding capitalist; J. Edgar Hoover?and thought-provoking ideas, e.g., waste as the cornerstone of civilization and the power of remembered images lurking just beneath the surface of our minds. But somehow the various parts of the story seem more satisfying than the whole. DeLillo is one of our most gifted contemporary authors whose works belong in all academic and public libraries, yet one suspects that his truly "great" novel is yet to come.
-?David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, Fla.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for any aspirational author March 26 2004
I first read Underworld four years ago and it's one of the few books I've read that had a major impact on me. It was also the first book by DeLillo I read and as soon as I finished it I went straight out and bought everything else he'd ever written, something I've only done with one other author, Joseph Heller.
The similarity between these two authors is that they both showed me just how great the modern novel can be. Despite what may be written elsewhere DeLillo's writing is anything but untruthful or affected. He does his best not to criticise or judge but to simply show a warts and all snapshot of the different ways it is possible for people to think in the world we live in today. Underworld is a beautiful book, funny and wistful, it's not the easiest book in the world to read but every sentence is rewarding. Once you've finished it I'm sure you'll do the same as I did and buy the rest of work.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars of men and baseballs Dec 9 2003
underworld is truly a wonderful book. on one hand, it traces out the path a famous baseball takes during the course of its life. the book, of course, is loaded with much more. whether it is the story of a man that killed someone as a teenager (who now lives a rather normal life), the myth of a ship travelling around the world, constantly denied port, a family trying to understand their abandonment, or experiencing a sinking feeling as a father steals from his son, delillo constantly has the reader engaged. as with any of his books, he has us laughing (in near hysterics) at times, hoping for the best at others, and feeling nothing as a man gets is face blown off. his ability to make us experience along with the characters is remarkable, whether sympathizing with a cuckold or being captivated by a desert of interestingly painted airplanes.
so, who should read this book? probably anyone that likes any kind of book will find something to enjoy. the thrillers/mysteries will want to know who gets killed (interesting twist on the traditional, no?), the comedies will be choked with mirth, the dramatists will cringe, and the philosophers will be fully occupied. this book, as it were, has it all.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Stories of Americans tied together by a possibly apocryphal piece of baseball memorobilia - the ball which connected with Bobby Thompson's bat to make the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" - aspire to make something profound out of the superficial. At the very least, the stories succeed in being surreal, which may describe America during the Cold War better than any other adjective.
The book is not a complete picture of America; there could be no such book. But it gives a glimpse into the collective mind and soul of the baby-boomer generation better than anything I've ever read. Read this and watch Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanor's and you'll have a pretty good perspective on the dark side of post-WW2 America. However, a realistic "Generation X" character is lacking. The children of baby-boomers are portrayed either as followers or as loners; perhaps anything more textured would be beyond the scope of the book.
But in general there is more texture here than you'll know what to do with. Have fun..
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I don't usually read fiction, but this book ... Feb. 29 2004
By A Customer
Absolutely beautiful! I usually do not read fiction but this book has captured my heart from its first chapter. Beautifully written, easily readable, touching. Although the action might not be captivating, Don Dellilo's words are. The way he paints characters, feelings and situations is unmatched. I would leave a quote from the book but there are too many worth mentioning.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Uncontestable Classic Feb. 4 2004
This is easily one of the most remarkable novels in all of modern American letters. Granted, it dwells in that rarified and charicteristically self-selecting family of novels such as "Gravity's Rainbow," "Under the Volcano," "Moby Dick," The Sound an the Fury" or, even, "Absalom, Absalom,"etc., etc.
The thing about this book that gets me-and it shares this with all of the above- is how it resonates in the soul, man! This book- lumbering, frustrating, maddening thing that it is- ultimately folds you into it; you, as the reader hauling all his or her own correspondences and shared history-become complicit in all the smallness and grandeur of the later 20th century DeLillo evokes. And, ultimately, this book changes the way you think, and the way you see things.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful Dec 7 2003
Quite possibly the most beautifully written book of my lifetime. For those born in the 1970s, this is your Ulysses and Sound and the Fury. Each neatly woven sentence was like looking at a painting. In fact, some of the scenes were so perfectly written that I thought it was me who was there.
Absolutely stunning.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A "must read" April 20 2004
This is one of the best novels I have read in years. It was difficult to put down. Is Delillo pretentious? Sure, and so are a lot of other great writers. I will continue to re-read Underworld, because I suspect that it becomes more powerful the longer the reader has lived life.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Very Much Worth the Read Oct. 22 2003
The range of reactions about this book among the reviewers here is testimony to the strengths and weaknesses of DeLillo's UNDERWORLD.
The book's first chapter, which takes place in Ebbitt's Field on the day Bobby Thompson hit THE homer, to me, is a terrific tour de force, as is the episode where the protagonist, Nick Shay, commits manslaughter. These scenes would have been disastrous from the keyboard of another writer.
Secrets and codes abound: the numerology surrounding Thompson's home run, the clues of the Zapruder film, the secret of shoe making, computer codes, an artist's secret language, the unfathomable DNA of AIDS... All this make for an intriguing book to say the least.
On the negative side, the book does try to cover too much. Whereas a film like Forrest Gump encompasses much of Cold War America, the screenwriters were very selective about what they would use from the novel of the same name: they only used the historic elements that had an effect on Forrest and on the viewer. DeLillo has just about everything here, and this is what I think upset the reviewers who didn't like the novel: 800 pages that can't possibly all be relevant. In a sense, I agree that the parts are better than the whole. But those parts! WOW! Even if this book were half its length, it would still be two times better than everything else out there. Read this book; you'll see why, as of this writing, over 275 people had a strong reaction (mostly positive) to it!
Rocco Dormarunno, author of The Five Points and The Five Points Concluded
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