Underworld (DeLillo novel)

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AuthorDon DeLillo
CountryUnited States
GenrePostmodern Novel
Publication date
3 October 1997
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages827 (hardback first edition)
ISBN0-684-84269-6 (hardback first edition)
813/.54 21
LC ClassPS3554.E4425 U53 1997

Underworld is a novel published in 1997 by Don DeLillo. A best-seller that was nominated for the National Book Award and shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, it is often regarded as DeLillo's supreme achievement. In 2006, a survey of eminent authors and critics conducted by The New York Times found Underworld the runner-up for the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years; the novel finished behind only Toni Morrison's Beloved.[1]

Plot introduction[edit]

Underworld is a non-linear narrative that has many intertwined themes. A central character is Nick Shay, a waste management executive, who leads an undirected existence in late 20th-century America. His wife, Marian, is having an affair with one of his friends.

The events of the novel span from the 1950s through the 1990s. The characters in the book respond to several historical events, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear proliferation.

The novel is divided into eight sections:

  1. Prologue – The Triumph of Death (3 October 1951; this section has been published separately, as a novella, under the title Pafko at the Wall)
  2. Part 1 – Long Tall Sally (Spring-Summer 1992)
  3. Part 2 – Elegy for Left Hand Alone (Mid-1980s – Early 1990s)
  4. Part 3 – The Cloud of Unknowing (Spring 1978)
  5. Part 4 – Cocksucker Blues (Summer 1974)
  6. Part 5 – Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry (Selected Fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s)
  7. Part 6 – Arrangement in Gray and Black (Fall 1951 – Summer 1952)
  8. Epilogue – Das Kapital

DeLillo said that the novel's title came to him as he thought about radioactive waste buried deep underground and about Pluto, god of death.[2] The waste and byproducts of history, dissected and discussed throughout the novel, constantly resurface from the underworld (or, subconscious) of the American population despite their best attempts to repress and bury things they would rather forget. Further connections and connotations about the title can be made between part of the novel's subject matter (mafia criminals in New York who Nick Shay fantasizes may have had his father killed), and the 1927 gangster film of the same name.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel opens on October 3, 1951, when a boy named Cotter Martin sneaks in to watch the New York Giants play the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Giants' home field Polo Grounds.[3] (The prologue, Pafko at the Wall, was written on its own before the novel.) In the ninth inning, Ralph Branca pitches to Bobby Thomson, who hits the ball into the stands for a three-run homer, beating the Dodgers 5-4 and capturing the National League pennant. Known to baseball fans as "The Shot Heard 'Round the World", the fate of that ball is unknown, but in DeLillo's novel, Cotter Martin wrests this valuable ball away from another fan who has just befriended him, and runs home. Cotter's father, Manx, steals the ball and later sells it for $32.45.

Branca and Thomson are never given much screen time, and Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra only put in cameos, but other historical figures become important parts of the story. J. Edgar Hoover muses on death, loyalty and leather masks while comedian Lenny Bruce faces the Cuban Missile Crisis by impersonating a hysterical housewife shrieking, "We're all gonna die!"

Early in the novel it is revealed that Nick Shay was in a prison for murdering a man, but it is not until near the end of the book that we learn the details of his crime. After being released from the detention center, he is sent to a Jesuit reform school in northern Minnesota.

In the epilogue, we learn that Nick and Marian remain married despite infidelity on both sides. In fact, Nick indicates their relationship is much improved as he has opened up to her about his past – a subject that had always much interested her − and that he had been unwilling to discuss.


  • Nick Shay – The novel's protagonist and a waste management executive. He spends much of his life trying to come to terms with his father's disappearance.
  • Marian Shay – Nick's wife.
  • Rosemary Costanza – Nick's mother, maiden name Shay.
  • Jimmy Costanza – Nick's father who disappeared when Nick was 11. He and his family lived near Arthur Avenue, Bronx.[4] Jimmy was a small-time bookie who had a reputation for never writing anything down. He went out for a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes and never returned.
  • Matty – Nick's little brother. Very skilled at chess in his youth, but then gave it up. He served in the military in Vietnam and then worked for the U.S. government in the development of nuclear weapons. However, he soon finds he is uncomfortable with his choice of career and leaves to join a think tank.
  • Klara Sax – An aspiring artist who has a brief affair with Nick when he is 17 years old and she is in her 30s and married to Albert Bronzini with a young daughter. She and Albert divorce some time later (this is her first marriage). In all, she married three times, but divorced all three men. Nick goes to see Klara in the early 1990s when she's directing a project to paint decommissioned Cold War era bombers. Her last name is originally Sachs.
  • Albert Bronzini – Klara's ex-husband and Matty's former chess instructor.
  • George the Waiter – George Manza, a middle-aged heroin-addict and pool shark, a childhood friend of Nick's.
  • Marvin Lundy – An avid baseball memorabilia collector who devoted his life to obtaining the home run ball hit by Thomson. He was obsessed with tracing the ball all the way back to the game, but was unable to do so. He sells the ball to Nick Shay.
  • Cotter Martin – A young African-American boy who finds the oft-mentioned baseball in the prologue.
  • Manx Martin – Cotter's alcoholic father, who sells the baseball for $32.45 to a baseball fan.
  • Ismael Muñoz/Moonman 157 – A mysterious graffiti artist by whom Klara Sax is intrigued. He appears intermittently throughout the novel as an older and semiretired graffiti artist who paints angels around the city with a crew of younger children in order to commemorate children who have been murdered. He and his crew sell junked cars that have been abandoned around an area of the Bronx known as "The Wall" and help Sister Edgar feed the poor.
  • Sister Alma Edgar – An elderly nun; Matty Shay's elementary-school teacher.
  • Lenny Bruce – A comedian.
  • J. Edgar Hoover – The director of the FBI.

Literary significance and reception[edit]

Underworld received high acclaim from literary critics, particularly for DeLillo's prose and ambition. David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle declaring it DeLillo's “best novel and perhaps that most elusive of creatures, a Great American Novel."[5] Many have described the book as emotionally powerful.[6] David Foster Wallace wrote Delillo a letter in 1997, praising the novel and Delillo's talent. He described "the book as an organic thing"[7] and stated that

This novel is (1) a great and significant piece of art fiction;(1a) not like any novel I've read;(2) your best work ever, so far; (3) a huge reward for someone who's read all your previous stuff because it seems to be at once a synthesis and a transfiguration – a transcendence – of your previous stuff; (4) a book in which nothing is skimped or shirked or tossed off or played for the easy laugh, and where (it seems to me) you've taken some truly ballsy personal risks and exposed parts of yourself and hit a level of emotion you've never even tried for elsewhere(at least as I've read your work).[7]

He also remarked on the phonetics of the novel, telling Delillo "you use these Saxonic devices heavily and over and over and yet the prose never seems heavy or straining; in fact just the opposite: it always seems exquisitely controlled, sober, poised rather than lunging."[7]

Other critics, however, praised DeLillo's prose but found the novel overlong and argued it could have benefited from more editing.[6][8] On Salon.com, Laura Miller wrote that “Nick's secret, the one that supposedly provides the book's suspense, proves anticlimactic."[9]

In May 2006, The New York Times Book Review named Underworld as a runner up for the best work of American fiction of the previous 25 years. It garnered 11 of 125 votes, losing to Toni Morrison's Beloved by four votes.[10]

The literary critic Harold Bloom, although also expressing reservations about the book's length, has said Underworld is "the culmination of what [DeLillo] can do" and one of the few contemporary American works of fiction that "touched what I would call the sublime," along with works by Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), Philip Roth (American Pastoral and Sabbath's Theater), and Thomas Pynchon (Mason & Dixon, Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49).[11][12]

Allusions and references[edit]

Allusions to other works[edit]

The novel has J. Edgar Hoover utterly intrigued by The Triumph of Death, a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Hoover first sees the painting while at the baseball game; the painting was reproduced in Life and pieces of it fall on him when someone in the stands above tears up the magazine and tosses the pieces. Later in the book he obtains a print of the painting.

Several segments of the novel are named in homage to other works. Das Kapital is Karl Marx's magnum opus, "Long Tall Sally" is a song by Little Richard also famous as a cover by The Beatles, and "Cocksucker Blues" is an infamous unreleased Rolling Stones song and film. "Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry" was an advertising slogan for DuPont, while "The Cloud of Unknowing" is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century.[13]

Allusions to actual history, geography and current science[edit]

The novel incorporates a number of historical events. The prologue is about "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" and the whereabouts of the ball hit by Thomson are a recurrent element of the book. The book also employs Lenny Bruce’s reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Soviet Union's atomic weapons program (including their testing grounds in Kazakhstan).

DeLillo has said that the front page of The New York Times on October 4, 1951, inspired Underworld.[14][15]

Awards and nominations[edit]

In 1997, Underworld was a finalist for the National Book Award.[16]

Underworld was a nominated finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize.[17]

Underworld was the winner of the 2000 William Dean Howells Medal.

Film / TV adaptation[edit]

The novel was at one point optioned by producer Scott Rudin for a film adaptation before it lapsed. In 2002 Robert Greenwald held the rights and was in discussions for turning it into a television miniseries.[18]


  1. ^ In Search of the Best – New York Times
  2. ^ Bing, Jonathan. The Ascendance of Don DeLillo, Publishers Weekly, August 11, 1997. (retrieved Sept. 7, 2007)
  3. ^ "Reticent Novelist Talks Baseball, Not Books" by David Firestone, The New York Times, September 10, 1998. Retrieved 2010-06-01.
  4. ^ On page 234, an old, infirm character easily walks from Jimmy's neighborhood to Arthur Avenue.
  5. ^ Wiegand, David. We Are What We Waste, San Francisco Chronicle, 21 September 1997
  6. ^ a b Marshall, Gary. Don DeLillo: Underworld, Spike Magazine, December 1998
  7. ^ a b c Wallace, D. F. (1997, January 19). [Letter to Don Delillo]. Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin, Austin, Texas http://imgur.com/a/887Qn
  8. ^ Amis, Martin. Survivors of the Cold War, The New York Times, October 5, 1997
  9. ^ Miller, Laura. one nation, undercover, Salon.com, 26 September 1997.
  10. ^ "What is the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years?" The New York Times, May 21, 2006.
  11. ^ Leonard Pierce (Jun 15, 2009), "Harold Bloom on Blood Meridian", A.V. Club
  12. ^ http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2003/09/24/dumbing_down_american_readers/
  13. ^ The Cloud of Unknowing
  14. ^ Interview with Don DeLillo by Terry Gross of Fresh Air, October 12, 1997.
  15. ^ The front page of The New York Times on October 4, 1951
  16. ^ National Book Award winners and finalists Archived 2007-08-12 at the Wayback Machine (retrieved September 7, 2007)
  17. ^ 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner and finalists
  18. ^ Jonathan Bing (2002-05-21). "Household diva's TV bio simmering". Variety. Retrieved 2014-10-14.

External links[edit]