Don DeLillo is branded (and is a Brand) as the Elder Statesman of America’s paranoiacs… despite an obvious tonal aversion to atrocity. This is ridiculous.
If Norman Mailer hailed the work of Paul Bowles as heralding the death of the Square, the Square is here to inform Mailer (the way God informed Nietzsche) that news of said death was greatly exaggerated… and, also, that that Don DeLillo guy is a way-out proposition, man. Don DeLillo is no Paul Bowles, as far as that goes: he’s as safe as warm milk before bed in the 1950s. He’s no square-killer. He’s a stylist of immense talent with the disposition of a supremely-genial dinner date. You can’t really have a Literary King of the Paranoiacs with a tonal aversion to atrocity; not in a 21st century America in which 79% of all registered Conspiranoiacs believe that a former Vice President of the United States would unwind, on the weekends, by hunting Playboy Bunnies with a sniper-scoped rifle.
That DeLillo is one of the genuinely towering post War stylists of Am Lit is a cosmic joke of real nuance: he sheds such dazzling spectra on every page, in range from the unseen to the super-seen, in the service of doing his best not to say too much… not to go too far… not to cross any lines that would scare the horses. The sheep sometimes tremble, as in George Will’s famously clenched-buttock of a review accusing DeLillo’s even-tempered Libra of being an act of “bad citizenship”. But the horses yawn. 55% of registered Conspiranoiacs believe that Catherine the Great fucked horses, after all.
Not even horses fuck horses in DeLillo (though they do in corny old, onomatopoeic Tom Wolfe: the only truly wondrous set piece in A Man in Full featured a “winking” equine cunt that haunts me to this day).
DeLillo is a gentleman of the knowing-chuckle-on-the-stoop school. He allegorizes his mistrust of politicians in a wry hand-in-the-cookie jar, Norman-Rockwellian fashion. Or, say: imagine “Guernica” as painted by Rockwell and Rockwell’s “Little League” as painted by Picasso… imagine a diptych of these: that’s DeLillo’s tone as a Literary Philosopher (even if his personal tastes run to Coltrane and Pollock). This would account for the mainstream appeal of his bomb-throwing syntax.
He was the Edgar Cayce of the World Trade Center until it actually fell down. A lyric game of feint and implication is great until history calls your bluff and makes an extremely explicit statement in rubble and lava: then what? Falling Man was DeLillo coming out with his hands up. Falling Man was a white flag. The DeLillo of Mao ll and Underworld was like the greatest poet of 19th century France waging an irresistible campaign to romance a late-20th century starlet with silicon tits and a wad of gum in her mouth… until he got her in bed. At some point the poetry had to stop. He’d rather it hadn’t.
Every time I read Underworld, it astonishes me for two reasons: A) as 827 pages of unmatched (and consistent) epic poetry and B) a mainstreamy, Copelandesque hymn to “America” I don’t detest. DeLillo can’t even muster a tenth of Henry Miller’s cynical horror about the obvious gap between the golden myths America tells itself, at bedtime, before her prayers, every night, and her scream-soaked reality… not one-thousandth of Burroughs’ or the socio-politically schizoid Gore Vidal’s. There are no fire-dancing niggers or eviscerated hookers in Don DeLillo’s oeuvre, despite the fact that his Libra is a masterpiece of lyric clairvoyance on the subject of the forces that gathered to speed the projectiles which forced a man’s head open.
Underworld opens with the ’57 World Series, for chrissakes. I hate fucking baseball.