Don Delillo's new novel opens with one of the great set pieces of modern American fiction, a 50-page tour-de-force that ranks alongside the opening of John Updike's Rabbit at Rest (Harry Angstrom meeting his family at the South-west Florida regional airport), or the sequence with the roped wolf in Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing, or the scene in which Frank Bascombe watches his son getting hurt in Richard Ford's Independence Day.
It is October 3 1951, and the New York Giants are playing the Brooklyn Dodgers in the third of a three-game play-off. All right, it's only a game of baseball, and the ground isn't even full, but there are many in the crowd who feel a sense of history about the occasion ("This is the miracle year", "something big's in the works, something's building"), and several looking on from privileged seats are already part of history themselves: Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and J Edgar Hoover. DeLillo, starting as he means to go on, lets us hear a medley of different voices, but mostly we watch the game through the eyes of a black teenager called Cotter, who's there without a ticket (he has had to vault the turnstile to get in) but is nicely placed in the lower deck of the left-field stand when Bobby Thomson, his team 4-2 down, hits a home run to give the Giants victory. In the melee, Cotter grabs his own piece of history by seizing the match ball - not easy, since he first has to fight off the previously affable but now ragingly acquisitive white guy in the next seat. At last, losing his antagonist in the Harlem streets, Cotter takes his prize possession home.
"This is bigger than some wars I seen," someone remarks after the game. To those in the ground who saw it, and those who didn't but pretended to have been there, Thomson's homer is indeed Homeric, an event which (like Kennedy's death 12 years later) they'll remember for the rest of their lives. As a commentator at the game asks himself, which is DeLillo's way of asking it too: "Isn't it possible that this mid-century moment enters the skin more lastingly than the vast shaping strategies of eminent leaders?"
The question has particular force because on this same day in October 1951 the Soviet Union carried out a test on a nuclear bomb - DeLillo imagines Hoover being brought the news mid-game and (the one bit of the prologue which strains credulity) brooding over it while looking at a torn magazine reproduction of Bruegel's The Triumph of Death. In the New York Times the next day the stories are accorded equal front-page importance: same- size headlines, same typeface, same number of words. So Bobby Thomson's home run - the Shot Heard Round the World, as it became known - is intimately related to the start of the Cold War, and an apt place for DeLillo to open his vast and vastly ambitious novel about America from 1951 to the present day.
It's clear from the first sentence, intimate yet grandiose, what the novel intends to be: "He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful." This is a "people's history" of the postwar era, high-flown yet demotic, epic in its scope yet warmly focused on a small sample of ordinary women and (more especially) men. It touches on public events we've read about many times before - the Cuban Missile Crisis, McCarthyism, civil rights marches, Vietnam - and makes room, for example, for generous, seemingly verbatim excerpts from the performances of Lenny Bruce. But it's also an alternative (underworld) history of the era, accommodating less predictable subjects, among them chess, abortion, drugs, Catholicism, condoms, garbage and the Internet. The main characters aren't famous or powerful or even exceptional. They're private citizens intersecting with the impersonal forces of history. It's this intersection that Underworld wants to explore.
Though he honours the lives of ordinary Americans, Don DeLillo is a novelist not a Studs Terkel, a stylist not a stenographer. His novel is driven by two equally strong narratives, which work like a double helix, the curve of their stories separate yet linked. One involves the fate of the match-winning baseball, which Cutter's hard-up father steals from his son's bedside and sells next day for a measly $32.45. Like a holy relic, the ball passes from hand to hand, its authenticity constantly in dispute. Its eventual owner, at a cost of $34,500 (still a snip) is Nick Shay, whose story forms the other chief strand here - a story that's in part about an affair he once had with a woman called Klara Sachs (now a world- famous artist, as he sees for himself when he looks her up years later), but which also leads inexorably back to the basement room in which, as a young man, he shot someone.
De Lillo exploits our curiosity by revealing the how and why of this killing only at the end. It isn't plot, though, that keeps the reader going with eagerness and sometimes awe through 800 pages. It isn't ideas either, though De Lillo is famously a novelist of ideas, and just as his last book, Mao II, swirled with some of the great themes of the late- 20th century (celebrity, terrorism, mass crowds), so this one, working on a much larger canvas, repeatedly returns to issues of waste, consumerism and weaponry. It isn't even the characters who draw us on, though the range of them (across age and social class) is impressive, and the struggle to narrate or take centre stage in Underworld - Nick giving way to Klara, then his brother Matt, then Matt's chess teacher, not forgetting a graffiti artist called Moonman or the Texas Highway serial killer - is rather like the fight to possess the baseball, as if competitiveness were ingrained even in the book's structure.
No, more important to the book's momentum than any of these is DeLillo's eye for details that seem to sum up a whole decade (like Jell-O, which triggers a brilliant pastiche of Middle America, circa 1957) or which allow him to connect the seemingly unconnectable: it's while going out to buy a packet of Lucky Strikes that Nick's father disappears, and lucky strikes, or the world's avoidance of the ultimate unlucky strike, are what Underworld is about. That everything is connected to everything else is a belief solemnly held by a number of characters here: Nick himself as a young man sees number 13 wherever he looks, and, this being a novel of the Cold War, other characters voice conspiracy theories about waste disposal, nuclear contamination, secret weapons and even why the crowd for that famous baseball game was so small: "You have to understand that all through the 1950s people stayed indoors. We only went outside to drive our cars ... There was a hidden mentality of let's stay home. Because a threat was hanging in the air."
The great contemporary novelist of paranoia is Thomas Pynchon, and the conspiracy theories of Underworld do sometimes recall Gravity's Rainbow, which teased us with the premise that wherever in London the hero made a sexual conquest a V2 rocket would fall next day. But DeLillo's novel is more grounded than Pynchon's, less burlesque. Whereas to Klara, a true child of the Sixties, "everything is vaguely - what - fictitious", Nick, who has a much larger share of the story (and more of the author's sympathy, you feel), remains a feet-on-the-ground Bronx boy: "I didn't believe the nations play-act on a grand scale. I lived in the real." DeLillo does Klara's bohemianism in good faith, and his treatment of her current project - stripping down deactivated fighter planes and bombers in the desert, and repainting them in bright colours - is far from being a satire on contemporary art. But it's in Italian working-class homes in the Bronx that the novel's values are rooted: "The family was an art to these people and the dinner table was the place it found expression."
The novel takes its title from a "lost" Eisenstein film called Unterwelt, which - at its showing to an arty, hippie-ish New York audience in 1974 - is described in such exhaustive detail that you start to believe it might really exist. A 1927 gangster film called Underworld is also alluded to, and there's inevitably a feeling of a Dantesque infernal circle about the basement, with its furnace room, where Nick descends to commit his fateful act. This isn't to say every life here is damned, but even the happiest are touched by shadow. Above all there's the shadow of the bomb: which superpower will press the button first? For most people, it's a fear that dare not speak its name, but Lenny Bruce keeps saying it for them, with wild hilarity, during the Cuban Missile Crisis: "We're all gonna die."
If Libra, White Noise and Mao II hadn't already done enough to persuade British readers that DeLillo ranks with the best of contemporary American novelists, Underworld surely will. Reading it prompts the thought that even the most talented and ambitious of British novelists find it hard to work on this size of canvas, at any rate when they're writing about Britain: imagine beginning a novel with a cricket match, not a baseball game, and all the difference that would make to tone as well as scale. Yet there is nothing inherently parochial or nostalgic about British subject matter, as DeLillo himself showed when he wrote about the Hillsborough disaster in Mao II. With great writers, no matter what nation they belong to, anything seems possible. Underworld is certainly a Big American Novel. But it's also, more importantly, an empowering book, a redemption and keepsake of the debris of the modern world.
`Underworld' is published by Picador at pounds 18
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