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.
©1997 Don DeLillo (P)2011 Simon & Schuster
"Underworld is a page-turner and a masterwork, a sublime novel and a delight to read." (The Baltimore Sun)
There's pleasure on evey page of this pitch-perfect evocation of a half-century." (Newsweek)
"Masterpieces teach you how to read them, and Underworld is no exception." (The Seattle Times)
The word "CYBEX" burned into my eyes while listening to this book on the treadmill at my local "Y" because I had to intensely concentrate so that I did not miss a single sentence. This is not your usual novel - it does not have a conventional beginning, middle or end. The book starts off describing the playoff game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1951 National League pennant in which Bobby Thomson hit a three-run home run known as "the shot heard round the world". This section is priceless - the best part of the book, in my opinion. I felt like I was in the thick of the game with the various spectators, famous and not. Even though I knew the outcome of the game before listening to the narration, I was in complete suspense.
After this long section, the rest of the book skips through time, examining portions of the lives of people who were peripherally affected by this event. The next section of the book is a long first-person narrative from the point of view of Nick, a sanitation engineer, who owns the Bobby Thomson home run ball and is in the Arizona desert sometime in the late 1980's or early 1990's viewing an art installation by a woman who it seems he had some sort of involvement with years before (you will find out later - no spoiler alerts here!). We meet J. Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce and various other people, both fictional and "non".
And so it goes. The novel jumps back and forth, from the mid 1980's to the early 1990's, then to the summer of 1974, then to the 1960's and back to the period of time immediately before and after the historic 1951 baseball game. Not only do we view the lives of various people during these periods of time, but we also get a cultural snapshots of what was going on during these times. Some of the characters appear and reappear during these times. It is up to you, the listener, to put these narratives together.
Some listeners may be very disconcerted by this jumping around, and may not like putting various pieces of information together, but I found it fascinating. If, however, you want a conventional story, you only need to listen to the first part of the book describing the playoff game. It stands alone, and there is no need to listen to the rest of the book unless you want to.
I found Richard Poe to be a superb narrator - he took paced the narration very well, taking his time with the exquisite phrasing, and gave good voice to all the characters.
I only gave the novel 4 stars because I felt that DeLillo introduced too may "characters" that did not have much to do with the story. I also felt that he left a few loose ends. For instance, the home run ball was eventually caught by a black boy who snuck into the game. I was wondering what ever happened to him, but never found out. There were a few other instance of this.
In short, if you decide to listen to this book, you are in for a unique, fascinating, but possibly frustrating experience.
Underworld is a great book, a sprawling nonlinear narrative encompassing the great themes of the second half of the 20th century in America portrayed in the intimate lives of many characters. I read it when it first came out, and recently decided to listen to it on a long road trip. This performance is mesmerizing, Richard Poe always sounds as though he's speaking the words, not reading them, with variations appropriate to the many different characters. The audio quality on this recording is top notch as well, all around a very well done audiobook, highly recommended!
The book opens with a lengthy description of the "Shot Heard Round the World," Bobby Thompson's home run that gave the New York Giants the 1951 American League Pennant. This may be some of the best writing in American literature. Seriously.
DeLillo is a master of weaving intricate motifs, themes, and conflicts, across time, space, and individual lives. The breadth of knowledge--historical, cultural, sociological, political, and psychological--DeLillo displays in this novel is truly brilliant. Although the connections are often a bit overdone (e.g., the nuanced manifestations of the "underworld"), this is somewhat characteristic of DeLillo's style and postmodern fiction.
This is a masterfully planned and executed postmodern classic.
Richard Poe's narration is fantastic, as always. He is such a talented artist.
The book contains some great writing, and the narrator is excellent. However, I wished I'd chosen to read rather than listen to this book. The large cast of characters, the non-linear narrative, the subtleties of the connections between different episodes, etc. made it difficult to keep track of everything. I still enjoyed many parts--the first chapter is wonderful--but I struggled to keep the whole thing clear in my head.
I'm not sure who it's for. Perhaps the author himself might enjoy it, or perhaps anyone that savors ponderous non-linear ruminations about . . . well, after listening to it for 5 hours I still don't know what it's about . . . A baseball game and some guy that runs a waste disposal company and thinks too much. I think that after 5 hours I should have an idea of what a novel is about.
I listened to Infinite Jest recently, and I'd put the two in the same genre. After having read "Libra" I expected much more from Don Delillo. Libra was so well composed, and tightly structured, and moved at a good pace. Underworld is soooo slow, and confusing by comparison.
Not too bad.
I loved this complex interwoven story; the well developed charaters and how real life and all its strangeness is captured. It's a portrait painted with words. The narrator's voice suits the material perfectly.
Yes. There are many different characters in this long novel and Delillo interweaves their stories brillianly. They keep popping up at unexpected and yet absolutely correct spots in the novel.
I don't know of another writer who writes better dialog than Don Delillo.
As another reviewer noted, the long opening set piece in the Polo Grounds during the final 1951 national league playoff game between the Giants and the Dodgers is truely great writing. Delillo's imagined banter among Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Toots Shor, who in reality did attend the playoff game together, is very, very funny.
There is a great deal of sparkling dialog in the novel and Richard Poe does an excellent job in giving each character his or her own voice. I especially enjoyed his rendering of Marv Lundy, the retired sports memorabilia collector. Almost everying that Marv says sounds off the wall, yet hilarious. You don't get the full effect without Richard Poe's voice inflections.
I wouldn't rename it. I like Delillo's metaphor. No matter how deeply you bury nuclear or other toxic waste, eventually some of it is bound to rise to the surface. So too, no matter how far under the surface emotional pain and trauma is buried, it still has a great deal to do with what we do and who we are.
This is a great novel with snappy, yet absolutely authentic-sounding dialog.
I just didn't care about the characters - and too many characters. It has some very positive reviews, and I'm willing to say perhaps it's me. I tend to listen more to SciFi (Neal Stephenson, for example). My book previous to this was The Martian, and I *love* that book. I found myself just having my thoughts drift away from Underworld, and I wouldn't rewind for continuity - just didn't really care what I'd missed. It's probably the first audiobook I've done that with. If it had been a printed book, I'm sure I wouldn't have finished it.
The first scene.
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997) is a large sprawling novel tightly focused around a set of intertwining themes about waste, weapons, memory, language, perception, relationships, life, and death. It's set mostly during and after the Cold War in America, especially NYC. The tone, style, and concerns of the novel are established by the Prologue, a tour de force account of the deciding game of the 1951 pennant playoff between the NY Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, won by the Giants on the legendary sayonara homerun hit by Bobby Thomson off Ralph Branca, immediately being named "the shot heard round the world" while occurring at about the same time as a Soviet atomic bomb test. DeLillo writes the points of view of various people, e.g., Cotter Martin, the young black teen who flamboyantly sneaks into the game; Russ Hodges, the Giants announcer who enters baseball lore in calling the homerun; J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director who is attending the game with Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason; and Nick Shay, teen Dodgers fan who is devastated after listening to the game on his radio on the roof of his Bronx apartment building.
The novel itself opens in 1992 with 57-year old Nick driving through the desert to see Klara Sax, a famous 72-year old cast off object artist working on an epic project involving 230 retired Cold War B-52s. Forty years ago, it develops, Nick had a brief affair with Klara when she was married to his science teacher who was also his little brother's chess mentor. Now Nick works for a big waste management firm headquartered in a bronze tower in Phoenix and often feels unreal.
Although Nick is the protagonist of the novel (his is the only first person narration), DeLillo inhabits an impressive variety of characters at different stages in their lives, among them Nick's wife Marian (trying to make a self while married to a "demon husband"), his mother Rosemary (supporting her sons by herself), his brother Matt (deciding to quit doing bomb risk analysis work), Manx Martin (comically attempting to sell the Thomson homerun baseball), Marvin Lundy (epically searching for it), Klara Sax (enjoying life in NYC as an artist), her first husband Albert Bronzini (walking musing and schmoozing about the Bronx), J. Edgar Hoover and his aide/companion Clyde "Junior" Tolson (safeguarding the nation against "insurgents" of every stripe), Sister Edgar (doing good works with extreme cleanliness), stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce (riffing on the Cuban Missile Crisis), advertising account exec Charles Wainright (firing people and dispensing wisdom like "whoever controls your eyeballs runs the world"), his failure son Chuckie (on another bombing mission over Vietnam). The many point of view characters reveal how different people perceive and construct the world, life, and meaning: young and old, male and female, white and black, anointed and powerless, heroes and goats, believers and faithless, educated and ignorant, artists and scientists, marketers and consumers, entertainers and audiences, parents and children, siblings and friends, spouses and adulterers, geniuses and fools. . . Humanity in all its permutations.
Each short story-like chapter interweaves vignettes from the 1950s, 80s, 70s, 60s, 50s, and 90s. Even as DeLillo captures Cold War and post-Cold War American culture in appalling and hilarious detail, he universalizes his novel by linking 20th-century USA and Bruegel's The Triumph of Death. That's why he writes so many scenes at shows, parties, baseball games, demonstrations, etc. until even "private" scenes between lovers seem to occur in a crowd. But although the novel references Bruegel's painting and Pluto's Hades and sets Lenny Bruce to crying, "We're all gonna die!" and deals with war, Plutonium, murder, disease, aging, dying, and so on, it also shows how people create, educate, learn, love, see, remember, joke, communicate, know, and believe in that context. And it ends with a paean to peace.
The book is fresh and vivid in its depiction of the world, apt for a novel about looking carefully and bravely. For DeLillo, that kind of seeing is dependent on language: "You didn't see the thing because you don't know how to look and you don't how to look because you don't know the names." Thus Nick seeks the exact names of things, and DeLillo wields language precisely and plays with etymologies.
One thing he wants us to see is "the best kept secret in the world," waste, the origin of civilization, "a religious thing," for "It is necessary to respect what we discard," lest "What we secrete comes back to consume us." Thus Nick and his colleagues believe that "We were the Church Fathers of waste in all its transmutations," while "crafting the future" from "every kind of used and lost and eroded object of desire."
Like waste, weapons "reflect the soul of the maker," and DeLillo is the bard of the bomb: "the spectacle of the unmattered atom, the condensation cloud, arranged split-secondly on the shock disk, sort of primly, place centered, and the visible shock approaching, and the Biblical wind that carries sagebrush, sand, hats, cats, car parts, condoms, and poisonous snakes, all blowing by in the desert dawn."
Yes, the language of Underworld is rich and lyrical and ranges from the numinous to the comedic:
--"He has been to one night game in his life, coming down from the bluff with his oldest brother and walking into a bowl of painted light. He thought there was an unknown energy flaring down out of the light towers, some intenser working of the earth, and it isolated the players and the grass and the chalk-rolled lines from anything he'd ever seen or imagined. They had the glow of first-time things."
--"She had a European accent slashed and burned by long term residency in New York, and her hair had the retouched gloss of a dead crow mounted on a stick."
I love DeLillo's use of -ed to make new adjectives (not unlike Klara making art from B-52s): mermaided, roman-collared, unsheveled, eyelinered, scatterhanded, spindle-shanked, Buddha-headed, etc.
The fine reader of the audiobook, Richard Poe, nails all the nuances and pauses and emphases and accents and clearly relishes reading DeLillo's wonderful prose.
If there is a flaw, it's that after a while the many different lyrical, philosophical, and witty people start sounding like DeLillo. Or that reading the constant rich language becomes like dining only on juicy steak and dark chocolate mousse for a week. But this book is so funny and life-affirming, and is so packed with vivid and original descriptions and metaphors, and has such an ironic and sympathetic eye for human folly and mortality, and hosts such a large and interesting cast of characters, that it seems churlish to pick at such things.
"A modern classic - read it"
I have tried to read De Lillo's underworld three times. I've got 3 quarters of the way through on one occasion. Circumstance always drags me away, but despite this I maintain, this is one of the best books ever written - a modern classic.
It's a sprawling epic that you have to dedicate time to, an ensemble piece that spiders webs out of the Bronx into wider America, and wider life. There's a definite poetry to the way De Lillo writes, he loves rhythm and repetition. The repetition doesn't always sound totally convincing (or naturalistic) on the audio book, however, Dellilo's words are often profound and thought provoking, golden nuggets of wisdom spilling out as thick and fast and thrown away as garbage going into a landfill.
His reveals about his characters come seemingly randomly throughout the book, often when we've grown to trust characters, we suddenly learn something about them which we're perhaps not so fond of - like life maybe!
The book documents the end of the last century, it's peppered with historical characters some real some fictional, all fallible. It made me google certain events and I loved the continually present problem of waste, and junk (the central character is in waste management).
I managed to listen to the book when I was driving, when I was ironing, when I was cooking. I've had a real Underworld couple of weeks and loved every minute.
Maybe I'll even do it again sometime.
A great book. One of the greatest books of our time. Highly recommended.
"Sprawling 20th century epic"
In the end the tapestry comes together enough to give a sense of scale, the encompassing of so much Americana. The characterisation doesn't invite any particular affection, and so the passing of chapters and indeed the whole novel doesn't merit any yearning.
The writing is nevertheless mastery and the narration expert.
"Absorbing and Rewarding"
The book does indeed have a fantastic opening. Then it goes nowhere. This is not necessarily a bad thing but fans of conventional novels may feel let down by the lack of obvious narrative arc. The language however is exceedingly rich, it is no wonder that DeLillo received high acclaim from critics. The writing is poetic and draws you into the characters' situations in such a way that undramatic moments are realised as vividly as any book's most important plot points.
The characters are so real (some of them literally) that it is easy to believe that the story is a historical account rather than a work of fiction and the book provides a fascinating insight into US history and culture especially for a non-native. The performance of the narrator is utterly confident and the emotions of the characters are tangible in the nuances of the delivery. All in all a great work but not for the easily pleased.
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