As mentioned in an earlier post, there are books worth reading, and then are books worth looking into. This is fairly common in regards to short story collections, and books of non-fiction, but novels that fall into this category are a rare breed – an anomaly. For my money, Underworld by Don DeLillo is a good example of such an anomaly.
Underworld opens with one of the most compelling and ambitious chapters I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, I found the rest of the novel to be a bore. The good news is the opening chapter can now be purchased as a stand-alone novella, which I’ll talk about shortly.
The novel opens with the deciding game of the 1951 pennant race between the Giants and the Dodgers. DeLillo’s ability to capture a multitude of voices and the spectacle of this event is nothing short of genius. In addition to a number of working-class perspectives, some of the other characters inhabited and heard from include: Jackie Gleeson, J. Edgar Hoover, Russ Hodges, and Frank Sinatra.
In Underworld, this chapter is titled “The Triumph of Death.” And while the explicit focus is the Giants Dodgers game and the fabled ‘shot heard round the world,’ a number of subtexts and events run through the piece that gesture to a much grander scope of history unfolding around this crowd of 35,000 people so intently focused on the ballgame. The character used to deliver these larger implications is J. Edgar Hoover, who is far more fascinated by an image of Bruegel’s painting, which happens to fall into his lap, than he is the ballgame.
There’s so much going on in this story, I find something different and new each time I read it. And that’s the touchstone of great fiction.
The ballgame, which occurred on October 3rd, 1951 serves as ‘the event,’ which informs the rest of the novel, affects a number of characters, and provides an often invisible point of connection. I could say more. I could be much more specific and accurate with details, but I’m not going to be. This reductive, thumbnail sketch of the story’s concept is more interesting than the rest of the novel’s characters and events.
Luckily, you can purchase this chapter as it first appeared, as a stand-alone novella titled, “Pafko at the Wall.” First published in Harper’s Magazine, the story can be gotten on the cheap as an e-book or hardcover.
I have no idea if DeLillo was working on Underworld before “Pafko at the Wall” was published or if he was prompted to do so by the success of the novella. My gut feeling is the latter of the two is what occurred, but I haven’t seriously researched the subject. What I do know is this: I consider the chapter/novella to be an amazing pieces of fiction, one to be sought out and consumed.
I wouldn’t bother reading the novel unless I was having trouble falling asleep.