Defacing the Palimpsest:
Don DeLillo, New York Antagonist
Great Jones Street
(Houghton Mifflin, 1973)
For much of his career, on many of his books, one of the country’s most celebrated novelists confined his bio to a single line: “Don DeLillo lives in New York.” That was it, and more recently, as I dug into connections between the man’s work and his native city, I often suspected I wasn’t offering much better. I thought of Vladimir Nabokov’s crack about the academic paper on sex in Lolita: “rather like scouring Moby Dick,” he remarked, “for references to aquatic mammals.”
Still, as a native New Yorker, I couldn’t help digging—especially when I noticed at once how the author’s career depended on getting out of town. The departure is essential to his debut, Americana, and he stayed away for End Zone. Only in his third, Great Jones Street in 1973, did he lay claim to his home turf, and the result is his early standout. But DeLillo was once more out of here in order to achieve his artistic breakthrough with The Names in 1982. That novel ranks at or near the top of his catalog, and it ushered in an illuminated period that lasted nearly twenty years, but throughout that era all but one of the novels were set far from the Five Boroughs. White Noise is vaguely Midwestern, Libra visits the far-flung haunts of Lee Harvey Oswald and his antagonists, and as for Mao II, while everyone recalls the mass wedding in Yankee Stadium, the decisive turns in the narrative take place either Upstate or overseas. In one of the few Manhattan scenes, a madwoman seeks to smuggle out an animal: “Take it outside the city,” she says, “where it’s got a chance to live.”
The line resonates across all the late-20th-Century novels—until of course Underworld in ’97, shot through with New York material. This text, like Great Jones, proved exciting to revisit; I discovered that on first, rushed reading, I’d missed a masterpiece. But as for the novels that follow Underworld, even a casual reader can see that they represent another sort of departure: a new aesthetic tack. My own shorthand for this approach is fabulist, and by any name it leaves critics divided, but no one disputes its pervasive reference to Gotham. The salient case would be Cosmopolis, 2003, with so distinctive a storyline it afforded DeLillo his best taste of Hollywood honey.
If I were to likewise streamline Great Jones Street, I’d call it a wry travesty of withdrawal into the lower depths. The protagonist’s very name, Bucky Wunderlick, is a joke. When he quits rock’n’roll, he’s in for hard knocks, at the frayed edge of longtime market forces: “Slowly along Great Jones, signs of commerce became apparent, of shipping and receiving, export packaging, custom tanning. This was an old street.” Yet the passage continues: “it wasn’t a final squalor. Some streets in their decline possess a kind of redemptive tenor.” Down on the Lower East Side, though Bucky endures the deaths of loved ones and the loss of his voice, the tumble occurs as if in comic stop-time. The young DeLillo flourishes his rhetorical gifts with fiendish glee, missing few details of “post-atomic” early-’70s Manhattan, and certainly not the bum in the phone booth with his cock out. The spirit recalls the young Jim Jarmusch, who must’ve had a squat nearby. In the end, Bucky feels uplifted to see “the whole world turning into [...] the most ugly-beautiful street in New York City.”
Now Underworld, in its capolavoro of a prologue, sets its teenage protagonist darting after Bobby Thomson’s homerun ball “up the aisle through a thousand pounding hearts.” That crowded moment in the Polo Grounds suggests to me the multiple plots of a novel that could easily contain both my other texts. I’m not suggesting some simple comparison, however, that wouldn’t be fair, and after all Underworld speaks to DeLillo’s entire shelf of books. “Pafko at the Wall,” for instance, stands in counterpoint to his other famous ballpark opening, the Moonie wedding of Mao II. Surely these scenes set up a call and response, the first claiming “the future belongs to crowds,” the second reminding us, hey—so did the past.
The reminder also reverberates back and forth across Underworld, which exists above all as an act of reparation. My metaphor comes from William Gass on Proust, and refers to work in which an author pays back what he owes to the very constraints, from family to institutions, that he needed to flee. In DeLillo’s case the homerun ball provides the madeleine, a device intrinsic to New York: “This city,” claims one line, “is a ticking clock.”
As for the present plot, its tentacles keep curling back to Nick Shay and his attempt to “honor what we had,” as he tells his former illicit lover Karla, now also escaped their “old, loud Bronx [ ... ]spoken through broken teeth.” What kept them both down finds many embodiments in the novel, in particular the menacing J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI Director turns up in the two most germ-filled of the text’s Petri dishes, both the metropolis in microcosm, namely, the Giants-Dodgers finale and Truman Capote’s Black & White Ball. For yearning types like Karla and Nick, however, another impediment to their getaway may loom even more terribly, and it isn’t a threat, really. Just the opposite, neither finds it easy to shake the comforts of the ghetto: the smell of bread and sauce, the fellowship of the back alleys, “down the yards.” The skyline of Manhattan itself appears “a valium sunset, smoky and golden.” This Soma too can put the truth of their natures to sleep.
Even Hoover feels the tug: “He wants to feel a compatriot’s nearness and affinity,” amid “all these people formed by language and climate and popular songs and breakfast foods.” To make such a connection is a thing of the spirit, transcending time’s corrosion, and so I concur with thinkers like Josephine Hendin, another New Yorker, who detects parallels between the Bronx in Underworld and St. Augustine’s City of God. In the ’97 novel, after all, a nun has the final word. This sister has the strange name Edgar—she functions as an antipode to the repressive G-Man, surely—and her heroic work in the slum of the ’80s, “inside the strew of rubble” and backlit by graffiti, may bring about renewal of a higher sort.
“Capital burns off the nuance in a culture:” so runs the memorable opening of Underworld’s closing, “Das Kapital.” Yet it’s a later fiction that most brings capital to life, or cartoon life, in the person of Eric Packer, central consciousness for Cosmopolis. Not yet thirty but so wealthy as to put young Zuckerberg in the shade, Packer revels in the burn-off. Riding crosstown “at inchworm creep,” he savors every opportunity to gripe about nuance, the way it’s gone out of date. The word “airport” strikes him as hopelessly 20th-century, the accessories of his security as “vestigial,” and the city itself as an outmoded construct. Packer needs no New York poet to contain multitudes; he’s got his stretch limo. Inside the car, his most notorious indulgence is a rectal probe from his doctor, even as he’s consulting with his CFO, a woman. The threesome achieve an unconventional group orgasm—talk about a coddled odyssey!
Packer’s package, hermetically sealed, exists in stark contrast to Manhattan’s open-air hard sell: “Cash for gold and diamonds. Rings, coins, pearls, wholesale jewelry, antique jewelry. This was the souk, the shtetl. Here were the hagglers, the talebearers.” And yet this catalogue of the old school, “an affront to the future,” veers into a telling counterpoint: “But [Packer] responded to it. He felt it enter every receptor and vault electrically to his brain.” This same electricity powers all the exaggerated gestures of Cosmopolis; it crackles between the insubstantial numbers on the limo’s screens and the human hurly-burly outside its windows.
Indeed, as the financier approaches Eleventh Ave., naked bodies pile into the intersection, some sort of art or protest or both. Above that scrum the protagonist glides like the Sun God, east to west, but his story opened with the actual sunrise, and it found him stunned by insomnia: “he didn’t know what he wanted.” Such vulnerability rules the first few pages of Cosmopolis, so that when the dawn first lit up the landmarks outside Packer’s windows, “the noblest thing” seemed “a bridge across the river.” For this young tyro, the only bridge he hasn’t crossed is on the road to ruin. When he does discover what he wants, it’s across town amid the huddled masses: “He wanted to be here among them, all-body, the tattooed, the hairy-assed, those who stank. He wanted to set himself in the middle... among the old, with their raised veins and body blotches.”
The tumble out of the limo and into the moil, into Bucky Wunderlick’s neighborhood or Sister Edgar’s: this is the voyage that matters for Cosmopolis, and that establishes the novel as a fable of renunciation. One of the most fortunate men on earth strips himself of power and privilege, deliberately. He seeks to know “how things persist, the habits of gravity and time.”
Now, all three fictions, needless to say, rely on a lot else to generate their beauty and impact. Yet as I finished my rereading—while I was still in a New York state of mind—I realized, finally, that each of these novels works against that state of mind. I mean that all three texts dramatize the very opposite of conventional thinking about the city, at the time when they were composed. To use an image that reflects the books’ pervading concern with time, each strips away whatever bright poster has been plastered over its urban epoch; each defaces the downtown palimpsest.
Great Jones Street comes out of the era when, so the smart money claimed, decent white folks were no longer safe in town; about 1970, my own grandparents fled the Village. Yet on these same mean streets, DeLillo set loose a pale and underfed musician, and there the kid brought off a personal resurrection. Twenty years later, as the author pulled Underworld together, Giuliani was famously cleaning up the place, putting Times Square in the hands of Disney Corp. Yet the novel meditates on the scruffiest, scariest borough around, and while the neighborhood falls apart, its denizens rise to a kind of transcendence. As for Cosmopolis, of course it knows the current face of the city, the Playground of the Rich. The quester of the tale, however, seeks what young money always does, in an old and complicated human hive; he seeks some ultimate reality, something that smashes through his simulacrum of a life. Packer may be a Master of the Universe, that figure invented by the naturalized New Yorker Tom Wolfe, but he’s got more in common with the artist who dreamed him up—he’s that exigent, that contrary—and so he must go down to the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
JOHN DOMINI's latest book is The Sea-God's Herb, selected criticism, and in 2016 he will bring out a new set of stories, MOVIEOLA!