At the end of the evening, in exchange for a voluntary levy of approximately pounds 15, many walked away with living proof that they had been there - a novel, Underworld, weighing in at approximately 2 kilos, together with a spidery signature of authenticity.
Many in that crowd were PhD students - the girl sitting next to me was 80,000 words into a doctorate on the post-modern American novel. She'd approached the subject through cybernetics at first, she said, but her supervisor at Birkbeck had suggested a slightly different approach - through noise theory. This was why she'd read Delillo's White Noise. It was the only one of his books she'd read. It had been very interesting, she said.
At exactly the moment when anticipation reached fever pitch, the Waterstone's marketing manager walked on stage to tell us how to queue for the book- signing at the end, and to remind us that it might be embarrassing if the book hadn't been purchased first. Mr Delillo was not in the habit of signing paper serviettes or merely handing out easy smiles, not these days. Then an oozy American literary editor from the New York Observer hit the podium running, with enough ridiculous hyperbole to make an author break down in tears of gratitude. No wonder Delillo, when he came boinging across the stage like a kangaroo, looked contented. He even flicked the Lit Ed on the back of the neck with the cutting edge of his manuscript to show that he was being really pally.
The Birkbeck PhD already knew what Delillo would be like - small and wispy, with a heavy lisp. More private citizen than literary hero. And so it was. He treated us to 35 minutes of readings from the book, a kaleidoscope of literary images: the wonderful, fast repartee of a couple of Bronx butchers; kids smashing up a carriage on the Elevated Railroad; taking the sun on the roof of an apartment building in the Fifties, the tar melting in the heat.
Delillo knew that it was going to be a long book after he'd written the 20,000-word opening sequence, a description of a legendary ballgame between the Giants and the Dodgers, set in 1951. Somewhere within that sequence, a single sentence is buried describing a kid on a Bronx roof, listening to that game on the radio.
That kid, Nick Shay, would become the central character of the panoramic view of the Cold War era that the 800-page novel grew into over four years. Enough to keep any post-doctoral student of American literature gainfully employed for at least two lifetimes.Reuse content