Don DeLillo’s novels have tended to be loose, crisscrossing sagas, covering large spans of space and time. They are explorations, many-angled and painstaking, of the primal scenes of postwar American life, with a democratic regard for the power of crowds and a sports fan’s relish for the spectacular. It is not surprising that the greatest sequences this reclusive New Yorker has written, the prologues to Mao II (1991) and Underworld (1997), take place in baseball stadiums.
In Underworld, Mr. DeLillo mapped the aftermath of two highly public events, one ecstatic and the other traumatic: the Bobby Thomson home run (“The shot heard ’round the world”) that won the New York Giants the 1951 National League pennant; and The New York Times report, on the same day, that the Soviets had tested a second nuclear bomb. The book contains decades, as the repercussions of the Shot and the Bomb echo across the culture; and the decades contain multitudes. J. Edgar Hoover is a character, and so is Lenny Bruce. It is 800 pages long.
The novel’s protagonist, Nick Shay, is a waste-disposal “broker” with a characteristic weakness for memorabilia. He has embraced “the comprehensive philosophy of the firm, the Weltanschauung. I use this grave and layered word because somewhere in its depths there is a whisper of mystical contemplation that seems totally appropriate to the subject of waste.” The novel diversely works at this idea of a world engulfed by its own debris field, its hazardous materials and souvenirs. “All waste defers to shit,” Nick thinks. Then (paraphrasing Walter Pater): “All waste aspires to the condition of shit.” Mr. DeLillo’s theme is the incontinence of history, how it stains the present with nostalgia and paranoia. Underworld ends with a nun named Edgar on the Internet, looking up bomb videos.
Underworld may be Mr. DeLillo’s biggest book, but it is not his only big book. He has written about terrorism, 9/11, the superwealthy, rock stardom and, in Libra (1988), the Kennedy assassination, a novel that prompted the conservative columnist George Will to call its author a “bad influence.” Mr. DeLillo is also a novelist unusual for his argumentativeness. He regularly inserts dicta into his fiction that feel clipped from his own conversation (from White Noise: “Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom”), and he creates characters with rarefied inner lives, who eloquently engage with the latest in critical theory, world events and art. It can strike a reader as contrived. Real life is seldom as explicit with its themes as Mr. DeLillo invariably is with his.
Yet the prose is far more artful than its earnest grappling with ideas might suggest. “Everything seeks its own heightened version,” says Bill Gray, the blocked novelist-hero of Mao II. Such a search for a heightened version is frequently enacted by Mr. DeLillo’s sentences, which are extensile and unpredictable, ticking through long lists of flat descriptions before turning caustic in their final clause. “Feliks [Zuber] was here every day now, front row center, carrying with him a sentence of seven hundred and twenty years. He liked to turn and nod at those nearby, making occasional applause gestures without bringing his trembling hands into contact, a small crumpled man, looking nearly old enough to be on the verge of outliving his sentence.” The cumulative effect of this technique is to touch even Mr. DeLillo’s darkest writing with a latent comedy. The reader learns to anticipate that the flow of information will funnel toward a punch line.
The passage quoted above comes from the short story “Hammer and Sickle,” which first appeared in Harper’s in 2010. Now it has been reprinted by Scribner in The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories (224 pages, Scribner, $24.00), the author’s first collection of short fiction. Mr. DeLillo has put his career in it. There is a story, “Creation,” from 1979; there is also one, “The Starveling,” from this year. The book thus bears a curiously dual aspect, as both a 30-year retrospective and an unprecedented technical challenge. We see the style mature, gaining confidence, losing a layer of descriptive fat, and then putting it back on. But we also see a great artist, for whom grandeur of scale has been a kind of signature, forced to go small. Reading the book is a little like seeing if Frank Gehry can build a bungalow.
The adventure into a new and narrower form provides a fine occasion to compliment an aging writer on abilities he has always possessed. Mr. DeLillo is a lyrical witness to the physical world. In “Creation,” he sees the “massive tumbling summits” in low-flying clouds, and the faces of standby passengers in a tropical airport, “bland in their traveler’s woe.” In the title story (which appeared, in different form, in Underworld), he catches the resemblance of a “deep-streaked” patina of dust on a car window to “starry nights in the mountains.” The dust is the stars.
But it is dialogue, not description, that provides the ideal medium for this drolly rhythmic American writer. Mr. DeLillo likes the sound of real speech, and the sound of it turning surreal. In “Esmeralda,” he has some fun with a slum dweller in the Bronx, who encourages kids to cut loose their parents, lest they start “dangering their safety.” This same character has already exposed the component parts of a familiar word: “She be a addict. They un, you know, predictable.” The line cleverly takes advantage of the little hiccup (“you know”) that manifests its lifelikeness, suggesting that the unpredictability of the junkie is actually a form of predictability.