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“when i was your age, television was called books!”—Peter Faulk, The Princess Bride

Not a Cheap Date: Don DeLillo’s Underworld

Don Dellilo UnderworldI wasn’t all that impressed with DeLillo when I started pecking away at his ouvre with Mao II. Kinda boring, didn’t finish it. Then it was Great Jones Street, promising to feed my obsession with all things Dylan. Kinda boring, didn’t finish it. DL’s aloof stance and flattened affect made me wonder why I should give a shit about his characters when the author himself seems content floating miles above them as they wilt under the grey, drizzly monotony of his prose.

But I was determined. I’d give him one last chance with Underworld. The cover sure was pretty, the binding and print quality of the paperback edition seductive. So what if it ran 827 pages. It felt good in my hand.

In the course of 16 months, I wrestled with this two and a half pound brute not once, not twice, but three times a lady. The efforts’ prize was like finally deciding to stop buying “affordable” disposable furniture and invest generously in the last couch you’ll ever need to buy. The back cover review reads: “Masterpieces teach you how to read them, and this book is no exception…it may be the only book you’ll ever need.” It sounds high-falutin’, but it’s sure as hell true.

Underworld’s cinematic, elliptical prose plays like a  be-bop score for the French New Wave. The narrative jump-cuts across 50 years of an American history concerned with baseball, feminism, crime, art, J. Edgar Hoover, the Bronx, Jesuits, serial killers, the Cold War, grafitti, paranoia, Jackie Gleason, consumer culture, race riots, Frank Sinatra, nuclear annihilation, Brugel, fatherhood, Lenny Bruce, Judeism, AIDS, Abraham Zapruder, Manhattan roof-top parties, and better living through chemistry. With so many plates in the air, it’s some seriously pro juggling.

After the first go-round, I still hadn’t decided if I’d liked the book, but I found myself thinking about it for months. The book leaves you on similar footing as a film that reveals it’s true impact only long after you’ve left the theater. Or how on first listen, certain songs don’t quite reach you, the tunes wedged uncomfortably in your ear like ill-fitting earbuds. It can be a challenge to fully digest Delillo’s off-tempo cadences without recalling Missing Person’s “Words”:

It’s like the feeling at the end of the page when you realize you don’t know what you just read

Ah, pop music. It covers pretty much everything, doesn’t it. But anyway…

The book plays some serious hard-to-get with your advances. The first reading was a blind date, but by the second we were shacking up. The third time around I’d proposed. It was indeed the only book I’d ever need.

Ain’t it always the elusive ones we end up chasing most doggedly?
Oui, Oui, plus surement, Monsieur Le Pew.

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