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How the waste was won

Don DeLillo's brilliant epic novel Underworld compacts the 20th century

by Peter Keough

UNDERWORLD, by Don DeLillo. Scribner, 827 pages, $27.50.

[DeLillo] "Want not, waste not" might be the motto of Don DeLillo's triumphant epic novel Underworld. Since the Cold War, he suggests, the wasteland of T.S. Eliot has progressed from the cultural to the literal. Consumption overtakes production as the national pastime, with the garbage heap its crowning achievement, and like the poet, DeLillo plunges into the ordure -- plumbing its layers, seeking a new synthesis that somehow will extract meaning from the debris, redeeming history and individual experience. He may not have achieved that fusion, but he has taken the themes and obsessions of his last four novels and transcended them, and in so doing he has written what might be the finest American novel of the decade -- a vanguard of fiction for the next century.

If the imagination changes waste into art, history and faith transform it into relics. Such is the case with the baseball hit for a home run by Bobby Thomson off Ralph Branca of the New York Giants on October 3, 1951, winning the playoff series for the Brooklyn Dodgers. On the same day, the Soviet Union tested its second atomic bomb, ratcheting up the Cold War. In a tour de force, DeLillo opens his novel by re-creating the first event as charged by the lurking specter of the second, focusing his description on the viewpoint of a young black kid (who sneaks into the bleachers and makes off with the soon-to-be-legendary baseball) and J. Edgar Hoover, watching the game with his raffish cohorts Toots Shor, Frank Sinatra, and a soused and scatological Jackie Gleason.

The opening scene -- a masterpiece of shifting scale and interwoven voices that sets the pattern for the novel's 800-plus pages -- culminates with jubilant fans tossing torn paper onto the field of the Polo Grounds in celebration. A page from Life lights on the FBI director's shoulder -- it's a reproduction of Brueghel's The Triumph of Death. Fascinated, he studies the memento mori; moments later, Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges cries out, "The Giants win the pennant!"

Comparisons might be made between this and Robert Coover's cartoonization of Cold War public figures in The Public Burning, not to mention Coover's mythologizing of the sport in The Universal Baseball Association. But the episode is only the beginning, a statement of themes to be explored and interconnected in the dense and exhilarating fugue to follow.

Among those not celebrating the victory is an unnamed 16-year-old, who listens to the game on a roof in the Bronx. He surfaces again in the next chapter, four decades later, as Nick Shay, a waste-management engineer driving in the desert in search of Klara Sax, whose forte is making art out of found objects. He hasn't seen her since he was 17, when they were briefly lovers. Her newest project involves painting hundreds of derelict B-52s junked in the desert, reclaiming weapons and waste as human works of beauty. His is filling in the losses in his life epitomized by the Dodgers' loss of the pennant. Among them are a missing father (who might have been murdered by the mob), a man Nick killed (a repressed trauma involving a junked shotgun and a shotgunned junkie), and a life consumed by the enigma of what is discarded:

We build pyramids of waste above and below the earth. The more hazardous the waste, the deeper we tried to sink it. The word plutonium comes from Pluto, god of the dead and ruler of the underworld. They took him out to the marshes and wasted him as we say today, or used to say until it got changed to something else.

Such a fluid, Joycean shifting from the personal to the universal, from the quotidian to the mythic, marks the novel as it massively swings its full circle. If Ulysses can be compared to a palimpsest, perhaps Underworld, with all due respect, can be likened to a compost heap. It eschews chronological narrative for a labyrinth of wormholes that burrow back and forth in time, from one consciousness to another. Wandering through it with Nick is his younger brother Matt, a chess nerd who finds himself working as a "consequence analyst" for government weapons developers; the "consequences" he analyzes in abstraction, Nick must dispose of in actuality, and the two encounter in their parallel careers a network of possible paranoid conspiracies reminiscent of Pynchon.

In Pynchon, however, there isn't such religious longing beneath the beguilingly symmetrical chaos. The Holy Grail of the home-run ball, missing since the game, is to Nick a vague talisman of redemption, and he endeavors to possess it. It turns up with Marvin, one of DeLillo's most engaging and original inventions, a borscht-belty sports-memorabilia collector with a knack for vocabulary lapses, crackpot lists, and his own conspiracy theories and whose search for the ball uncovers a secret history of the Cold War, but no miracle. He muses:

The ball brought no luck, good or bad. It was an object passing through. But it inspired people to tell him things, to entrust family secrets and unbreathable personal tales, emit heartful sobs onto his shoulder. Because they knew he was their what, their medium of release. Their stories would be exalted, absorbed by something larger, the long arching journey of the baseball itself and his own cockeyed march through the decades.

In the end, death does seem triumphant: there is no resurrection; at best there is recycling. Nick journeys to the Kazakhstan test site where the October 3, 1951, blast took place, and where Viktor Maltsev, a history teacher turned capitalist entrepreneur, has devised a scheme to destroy deadly plutonium waste with underground nuclear explosions. "The fusion of two streams of history," he reflects, "weapons and waste . . . . Because waste is the secret history, the underhistory, the way archaeologists dig out the history of early cultures, every sort of bone heap and broken tool, literally from under the ground."

DeLillo, though, will not leave those bones dry and unconnected. He posits, for example, a counterpart to J. Edgar -- Sister Edgar, herself an austere tyrant who lives long enough to see the miracle of a martyred child -- or is it a trick of advertising? What follows is a dazzling apotheosis that is the equivalent for its age to the finale of Eliot's great poem; and both end, maddeningly and fittingly, with the same sentiment: peace.

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