I might as well admit this up front: I’m a sucker for the early, disreputable novels of the acclaimed. This is particularly true in the case of my favorite writers. Were I packing for a vacation on a remote island—a vacation free of the small charming dictators who masquerade as my children, and thus a vacation in which I might read for more than three minutes without having to arbitrate a dispute involving Popsicles—I would choose Sula over Beloved. I realize the latter is considered one of the greatest works of American fiction, but I find its dense collage of interior monologues needlessly confusing. As far as I’m concerned, Toni Morrison peaked in 1977, with Song of Solomon, in which her stunning lyricism and allegorical ambitions sharpen, rather than obscure, her characters. In the case of Martin Amis, I find myself rereading, every six or so days, Money, his paean to the sociopathic charms of the Reagan-Thatcher axis. I then pick up the more seriously regarded The Information and lose steam on page 71.
Nowhere is this early-career fetishism more scandalous than in my attitude toward Don DeLillo. Of his sixteen novels my favorites remain his first two, Americana and End Zone, works rarely cited in the company of later heavyweights such as Libra and Underworld. DeLillo himself declared the original manuscript of Americana “very overdone and shaggy,” an apprentice work. I also have a soft spot for White Noise, his commercial breakthrough, though the book has been reviled by critics ranging from Jonathan Yardley (“a trip to nowhere”) to the dyspeptic B. R. Myers, who dismissed its “spurious profundity.”
As a short-story writer, I was especially eager to read DeLillo’s first-ever story collection, the newly published The Angel Esmeralda. As in all his work, the prose is mesmerizing at the level of the sentence. But the stories unsettled me. There is a hollowness at their core, a profound despair. And this feeling triggered a curious side effect: I suddenly yearned for those early, shaggy novels, for the chance to reimmerse myself in the imperfect hope of Don DeLillo’s literary youth.
The rest of this essay will amount to an apology for my taste, though it won’t sound like an apology. It will sound more like a set of theories, implorations, and asides. This is the modern American apologia, a sort of defensive rhetorical jitterbug. It’s a lot of what Don DeLillo does. He apologizes for America without really apologizing. He investigates how a nation could fall so far away from its collective decency without much apparent moral disruption.
An initial theory, then: there are two basic motives living within all readers. They want to spend time in the presence of a great mind. And they want their hearts awakened. Works we consider classics gratify both needs. Austen and Dostoyevsky endure because they provide insight and catharsis.
But most authors eventually stake out a territory that favors one aesthetic approach over the other, something that’s easiest to discern at the extremes. A book too eager to engage our emotions, or manipulate them, descends into sentimentality. A book crammed with evidence of the writer’s intellect but devoid of feeling courts narcissism and, eventually, nihilism.
I think of this latter approach as the Great Minds School (GMS). Whatever brilliance GMS writers might display, they tend to avoid forcing their characters into, or through, much genuine emotional danger. You read their books to hear what the author has to say about the world. They ask of us thoughtful accord, not tears.
This is not to suggest that such writers are incapable of pathos. But they tend to express emotion indirectly, by means of humor served black. Their protagonists rant and philosophize and scavenge ravenously for meaning. They build elaborate verbal ramparts against the confusion and doubt inflicted upon them by what I suppose I must call modern life. I am thinking here of Saul Bellow, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and, of course, Don DeLillo.
I first came across DeLillo in El Paso, Texas, where I worked as a reporter after college. I was just figuring out that literature might have something to do with me. It was an inconvenient revelation. What I really wanted to do with my spare hours was get stoned and find a woman foolish enough to sleep with me.
But I had this queasy hunch I wasn’t examining life as carefully as I should be, that the minor ego dramas of my workplace were distracting me from more vivid forms of meaning. Life in the desert offered intimations. The floods brought biblical visions: Mexicans dancing in holy mud, cattle drowned where they stood, children swimming in gutters. The streetlights along Mesa, when they came lit, took the shape of a cross.
Someone handed me the novel Americana. (It is not a book I would have found on my own.) I read: “Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year. Lights were strung across the front of every shop. Men selling chestnuts wheeled their smoky carts. In the evenings the crowds were immense and traffic built to a tidal roar. The santas of Fifth Avenue rang their little bells with an odd sad delicacy.” Those last three words killed me. I couldn’t figure out why. The poetry eluded me. It was clear I was going to love Americana in a not very critical way.
Which is fine. We should all feel this way about our favorite books: the dumb devotion of the disciple.
Upon rereading the book in my mid-forties—allow me to pause here for a brief crying jag—my affection stands. Americana, composed in the late 1960s and published in 1971, is a lumpy, disjointed mess. Our hero is, in a narrative sense, uncooperative. It doesn’t matter. I simply want to hear DeLillo sing. Here he is, offering a migratory incantation worthy of Steinbeck: “On foot they traveled, in old and new cars, in motorcycle packs, in trucks and buses and camp trailers, the young and the very young, leaving their medieval cities, tall stone citadels of corruption and plague, not hopeless in their flight, not yet manic in their search, the lost, the found, the nameless, the brilliant, the stoned, the dazed and the simply weary, shouting their honest love of country across the broken white line.”
In Americana, a young stud television executive named David Bell sets off across the country in pursuit of the “big outdoor soul of America,” and loses his mind. The Hollywood pitch would probably be On the Road meets Catcher in the Rye. But to speak of the book as having a plot is misleading. Plot implies consequent action, events triggering other events, characters summoning fate, a calculated culmination. A DeLillo production doesn’t operate like that. His novels are loosely knit riffs, variations on given themes, jazz of the sort Bell seeks out on the late-night radio: “With luck I’d catch a scrap of catatonic Monk, or Sun Ra colliding with anti-matter, and some note would pin together pieces of the spreading night and it would all make sense for a moment, the mad harmonics bringing most of what was sane to those who ran with death, and we would head into the gulf of early light with that black music driving over me.”
The novel’s first hundred pages offer an absurdist vision of the American workplace as a demented surrogate family. Bell spends another sixty pages surveying his suburban childhood, like a turbocharged Cheever. Then he hits the road, where he encounters all manner of citizen. “Drotty wore black silk and pale green corduroy,” he observes, of a failed actor. “He was a dagger of a man, a small jagged bad mood glinting in a corner. Yet he smoked his cigarette almost tenderly, every movement of his hand a soft and highly deliberate piece of orchestration.”
In other words, DeLillo stuffs everything he can into the book, including pep talks to himself. “You’re really going strong,” an old friend tells Bell. “I haven’t the slightest idea what the hell you’re talking about but it sounds great, it sounds really heavy, it sounds committed.”
So what is Americana, in all its plotless lurching, about?
The amateur psychoanalyst in me wants to say it’s about survivor guilt, about those young men who dodged Vietnam, and opted out of the counterculture, only to discover the spiritual upheaval of the epoch within themselves. The cultural critic in me insists the novel is about the American lust for mythmaking. But mostly, I think, it’s about a preternaturally gifted artist granting himself the right to make art.
DeLillo first took up writing as a teenager, aimed for a gig in publishing, and wound up in advertising instead. He quit his job at twenty-eight (the same age as David Bell), to write full-time. It took him another seven years to produce Americana. Can it be happenstance that everywhere Bell turns he finds a failed writer? His road companion Brand is writing a novel he hopes will “detonate in the gut of America like a fiery bacterial bombshell.” His old college friend Ken Wild has given up: “I couldn’t make the leap out of my own soul into the soul of the universe.” Bell is even assailed as a teenager by a drunken friend of his father’s. “I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” the man blurts out. “I tried to write when I was a young man but I had no staying power. I’d get started in a burst of energy and goodwill and then I’d just fade out and die.” These are the ghosts of DeLillos past, you might say.
David Bell sets out to make “a long unmanageable movie full of fragments of everything that’s part of my life.” By the end of the novel, the artifact in question is not a film but a manuscript (the one we’re reading, presumably), which he moves from one room to another “in order to be surprised by it as I enter that room.”
DeLillo doesn’t disguise his ambitions. To me, that’s part of the book’s charm. “What I was engaged in was merely a literary venture,” Bell finally admits, “an attempt to find pattern and motive, to make of something wild a squeamish thesis on the essence of the nation’s soul. To formulate. To seek links.” For a writer as expansive as DeLillo, this proves a surprisingly durable ars poetica.
All writing amounts to a transcription of the author’s obsessions. Americana offers an extreme case study. It represents not only a purging of DeLillo’s accumulated obsessions, but a road map to the rest of his career. He holds forth on a host of topics—technology, terrorism, Thanatos—that will emerge as central to his subsequent novels.
Consider Bell’s brief visit to a desert cult. He encounters a starry-eyed girl who’s basically the prototype for Karen, the young Moonie who turns up in DeLillo’s 1991 novel, Mao II. Bell then plays catch with a Native American kid, a scene that evokes the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds, and, to any loyal DeLillo reader, the stunning sixty-page set piece that opens 1997’s Underworld: the legendary 1951 play-off grudge match between the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, which ends with Bobby Thompson’s game-winning homer, the shot heard round the world. Bell also meets a shamanic figure who ventures into the desert to receive transmissions from UFOs. Five years later, DeLillo would devote an entire novel, Ratner’s Star, to this very subject. The connections are sometimes downright eerie. In the final paragraph of Americana, Bell retraces JFK’s route through Dealey Plaza, the infamous site that serves as ground zero for Libra, his 1988 novel about the Kennedy assassination.
This is what it’s like when you take direct orders from your subconscious.
I spent months reading and rereading Americana, and walked around the El Paso Times newsroom announcing this fact every few minutes. Eventually, one of the pale, tragically erudite copy editors who populate small-town newspapers suggested I check out Great Jones Street, DeLillo’s third novel. She said I’d love it because it was about a rock star. I was, by this time, despite any plausible qualifications, the paper’s rock critic.
I expected backstage exploits, sexual mayhem, fame and its assigned indulgences. But the novel’s mood was bleak. I was frequently confused. I didn’t like any of the characters, and I sensed DeLillo didn’t like them, either. Back I marched to the El Paso Public Library. I returned Great Jones Street, and picked up End Zone for the simple reason that the front cover featured a football.
It came as a pleasant shock that the book was actually about football—of which I was and remain a devout and reluctant fan—and even more so that it was set in West Texas. Where I lived. I emphasize this because it seemed like a very big deal to me. It encouraged the delusion—always so tantalizing to the chronically self-involved—that there was some cosmic connection between Don DeLillo and myself.
End Zone‘s narrator is Gary Harkness, a running back in exile from the nation’s topflight programs, who winds up at tiny Logos College, “that remote and unfed place, that summer tundra,” to evade the draft board and settle his restless brain. “Whatever complexities, whatever dark politics of the human mind, the heart—these are noted only within the chalked borders of the playing field,” Harkness assures us. “At times strange visions ripple across the turf; madness leaks out. But wherever else he goes, the football player travels the straightest of lines. His thoughts are wholesomely commonplace, his actions uncomplicated by history, enigma, holocaust or dream.”
Harkness spends the rest of the novel joyously flouting this claim. He and his teammates engage in learned colloquies. They debate the relative merits of Sir Walter Scott and Isaiah. They grapple with the seductive atrocities of modern combat. Then they put on their pads and pop pop pop. The novel is a deadpan enactment of the Judge’s famous admonition from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “All games aspire to the condition of war.”
But Harkness himself explicitly rejects the obvious football-as-warfare metaphor. “Sport,” he argues, “is a benign illusion. The illusion that order is possible.” His interest in juxtaposing the jargon of nuclear war and the gridiron is on behalf of a more radical notion: that aggression has played a central role in denaturing language itself. Contemplating an overzealous teammate, who has pledged to run through a brick wall for his head coach, Harkness observes: “Bobby had this loyalty to give, this eager violence of the heart, and he would smash his body to manifest it. Tradition, of course, supported his sense of what was right. The words were old and true, full of reassurance, comfort, consolation. Men followed such words to their death because other men before them had done the same, and perhaps it was easier to die than admit that words could lose their meaning.”
This, so far, is all the self-assigned work of the good old GMS. But what sets End Zone apart from so many other DeLillo novels is the obvious affection the author holds for his players. They may speak in the hyper-articulate patois native to all DeLillians, but there’s something essentially innocent and kindhearted about them.
I think here of a scene early in the book. Harkness is having lunch in the cafeteria with Taft Robinson, his fellow running back, and the only black student enrolled at Logos. A third player, Moody Kimbrough, begins hassling Taft. Harkness tells him to mind his own business. “I watched [Kimbrough] coming toward our table. I thought briefly about the fact that he outweighed me by forty pounds or so. Then I got up and hit him in the stomach. He made a noise, an abrupt burp, and hit me in roughly the same spot. I sat down and tried to breathe.” Such an odd and touching moment of chivalry!
It is my own admittedly speculative belief that DeLillo was writing here not just about the American cult of violence, but about the young men who were still being sent to die in Vietnam on our behalf. Harkness and his teammates are symbolic proxies, happily enslaved to obscene and ancient notions of valor. The novel is a love letter to them, veiled and elliptical, but a love letter nonetheless.
I’ve failed to convey how funny End Zone is. Allow me to quote assistant coach Oscar Veech, addressing one of his charges: “Lee Roy, you’re a dung beetle. Shit is your proper environment.”
The most shocking aspect
of End Zone
is its fidelity. DeLillo’s descriptions of the game are astonishing, almost hallucinogenic, in their intensity. More than any other writer I can think of, he manages to get us inside the experience of being an athlete. The centerpiece of the novel is a dazzling thirty-page play-by-play of a single game. A few choice snippets:
Telcon faked a hand-off, dropped slowly back (ball on his hip), then lofted a pass to his flanker who had five steps on Bobby Luke. The ball went through his hands, a sure six, and he stood on our 45 yard line just a bit stunned, his hands parted, a tall kid with bony wrists, looking upfield to the spot in time and space he would have been occupying that very second if only he had caught the football.
Dennis Smee, at middle linebacker, shouted down at the front four: “Tango-two. Reset red. Hoke that bickie. Mutt, mutt, mutt.
I was on my back, somebody across my legs, when I realized their tackle, 77, was talking to me, or to Taft, or perhaps to all of us spread over the turf. He was an immense and very geometric piece of work, their biggest man, about six-seven and 270, an oblong monument to the virtues of intimidation.
[Coach] Hauptfuhrer started shouting at the defense, howling at them. His face was contorted, squeezed into tense pieces. Sound of lamentation. It drifted across the clear night to all bright creatures curled beneath the moon.
This is football. But it’s more than football. It is, for the players and fans, a kind of primitive spiritual practice.
I had never, in my two decades as a spectator, thought of sports in this way. I’d accepted the allegedly more enlightened view that athletics was a diversion from the serious business of adulthood, and that my addiction represented a shameful refusal to leave childhood behind. But the exquisite renderings of football in End Zone suggested a richer possibility: that the compact drama of sport awakens within us deep recesses of emotional meaning, improvised occasions for grace and heroism, reasons to believe.
Late in the novel, Harkness and his mates play a pickup game in the driving snow. It quickly degenerates into a brutal affair. No strategy, no spectators, no rules. The contest becomes a primal communion of bodies “seeking harmony with the weather and the earth.” For all the scholarly gymnastics the players perform in their Spartan dorm rooms, this game is the novel’s thrashing heart: an ecstatic celebration of the body at play.
Is it any wonder that the opening paragraph of the novel I wrote during grad school was cribbed, almost in its entirety, from End Zone?
Shit is my proper environment.
The problem with GMS writers, the reason they tend to oscillate between very good books and not-so-good books, is that their brains overrun their hearts. Their books become theoretical in a manner that makes them emotionally remote. As a matter of literary practice, it is easier to hold forth than to feel.
White Noise, published in 1985, the dark heart of the Reagan Revolution, does both. The book is full of important ideas, about screen addiction, environmental ruin, and the atomizing seep of technology. But mostly, it’s a novel about family.
Jack Gladney, the narrator, is the founder and head of the Hitler Studies department at a Midwestern college, a devoted husband to his fourth wife, Babette, and father to a rambunctious brood of children who range from toddler to teens. The book is an academic satire anchored in domestic tragedy. Here’s Gladney, describing a fast-food excursion that might as well have been cribbed directly from the Almond family archives: “Journeys home were always a test. I started up the car, knowing it was only a matter of seconds before the massed restlessness took on elements of threat. We could feel it coming, Babette and I. A sulky menace brewed back there. They would attack us, using the classic strategy of fighting among themselves. But attack us for what reason? For not getting them home faster? For being older and bigger and somewhat steadier of mood then they were? Would they attack us for our status as protectors—protectors who must sooner or later fail?”
To anyone familiar with the alienated loners and vile opportunists who populated the bleak run of novels preceding White Noise, passages like this mark an unprecedented tenderness. Yes, DeLillo’s characters still speak like wise-guy philosophers. They still joust over the metaphysics of the mundane.
But they also care for each other. For all the menace on display in the book—including, most famously, an airborne toxic event—the fear that most haunts Gladney and his wife is that one of them will outlive the other. “Who will die first?” Gladney asks, no fewer than four times in the novel.
Here he is on his hypochondriacal daughter Steffie: “I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters.”
I love moments like this, when DeLillo’s relentless eloquence gives way to a plainspoken sorrow. Gladney is talking about more than his daughter. He’s talking about an entire population in thrall to terror, about news anchors who grow “increasingly forlorn” as they discuss the absence of mass graves, “almost ready to plead with us for sympathy and understanding.”
For all White Noise
‘s banter and cinematic excursions into mayhem, the novel manages to make us sympathize with the Gladney clan, and to see in them our own corrosive doubts and devotions. The world here has been reinvented in ways we cannot begin to fathom. And yet, DeLillo suggests, whatever terrors lurk in our midst, we remain bound by family, and the familiar duties. Which may be why the novel closes with Jack Gladney, suburban dad, in a grocery store:
The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.
It is DeLillo’s unrivaled talent to make us see these hidden valences, what he calls the “unexpected themes and intensities” of an increasingly alien world. But his true genius resides in a reluctant humanism. He is struggling to keep the family of man intact, despite its lazy habits and barbaric instincts.
To read DeLillo’s early novels today is to feel the exasperated breath of a failed prophet. More than any other American author I can think of—Vonnegut would be a distant second, I suppose—DeLillo recognized the fundamental shifts in the national consciousness long before his contemporaries. His preoccupation is not only with forms of mass worship (sports, warfare, celebrity, religious cultism) but with the larger moral environment that induces them: our cultural embrace of paranoia, our rampant consumerism, our addiction to symbiotic cycles of terror and rage. These themes are sounded time and again in Underworld, his epic account of postwar America. But the most harrowing of all his novels, at least from my vantage point, is Mao II, which envisions an age in which the novelist’s power to “alter the inner life of the culture” has been hijacked by terrorists whose “major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings.”
Mao II was published in 1991.
Can there be any doubt as to why the mood of DeLillo’s recent novels feels curdled, the buoyancy of his humor deflated? The prose grows more austere, the characters more withdrawn. Lauren Hartke, the grieving widow of The Body Artist (2001), spends most of the novella wandering her home and pondering Big Questions of the sort GMS writers adore, about the nature of time and reality.
Or consider Eric Packer, the financier at the center of Cosmopolis, DeLillo’s follow-up. At twenty-eight, he’s a young lord of Manhattan, a faint echo of Americana‘s David Bell. But whereas Bell lit out for the West, Parker travels across town for a haircut—by limo—and spends two hundred pages stuck in traffic. DeLillo intends Cosmopolis to function, in part, as a satire about the excesses of our free market theology. It often scans more like a sad dispatch from the moral wilderness of late-model capitalism. History hasn’t just caught up with DeLillo; it appears to have mugged him of his hope.
What, then, to make of DeLillo’s newest book, the story collection The Angel Esmeralda? The nine stories were written over more than three decades, so one might expect to see his literary evolution on display. But there’s a striking consistency to the pieces. DeLillo remains ever the jazz man. His characters tend to drift along in bubbles of alienation, riffing on the world with a searing precision.
The story “Creation,” the earliest one included here, features an American couple on a small Caribbean island. The crisis? Their outbound flight has been delayed. The wife catches another flight. The husband sticks around. He floats in a hotel pool, ruminates, and, apparently, sleeps with another stranded traveler. That’s the whole enchilada. “Creation,” in other words, functions in the tradition of the GMS. It’s not so much a story as a meditation.
As a study in contrasts, I kept thinking about the Ray Bradbury gem “And the Rock Cried Out,” about another wealthy American pair trapped in a third-world locale. In this story, the fragile bonds of civilization have broken down and the natives have grown restless. The couple’s situation grows increasingly dire. Without sentiment, Bradbury ratchets up the peril, until we must watch them walk toward a sure and brutal execution.
DeLillo is uninterested in such compression of motive and action and risk. Even when his stories include tumult—the protagonist of “The Runner” witnesses a child abducted from his mother; a man nearly rapes a woman in “Baader-Meinhof”—the narration casts a chilly gaze on all involved. His characters have compulsions and phobias rather than hopes and dreams. The hero of “The Starveling,” for example, has devoted his life to watching films. But we get no sense of what he derives from the images onscreen. His ex-wife advances theories. “She spoke late at night, usually in bed, bodies at rest, and he liked listening to these ideas. They were impeccable fictions, with no attempt on her part to get his rendering of what might be the case.”
The same can be said of DeLillo. He doesn’t seem to trust, or even believe in, psychological motive. Most of his characters exude a kind of stubborn opacity. A typical exchange:
“Do you have an inner life?”
“I sleep,” he said.
“That’s not what I mean.”
To enjoy a Don DeLillo story (and to a lesser degree his novels) requires a suspension of our normal narrative expectations. We are asked not to sympathize with characters so much as to participate in their existential confusion. And this we gladly do, for the most part anyway, thanks to the piercing beauty of DeLillo’s prose, his astonishing capacity to make us see the world anew. In a sense, he’s asking us to reorder our very manner of reading. Our protagonist exists not to get the girl or vanquish a rival but to confront the ineluctable mysteries of the human experience. The hero, and villain, of all DeLillo stories winds up being consciousness itself.
The Angel Esmeralda doesn’t offer much in the way of overtly autobiographical fiction, but there is “Midnight in Dostoevsky.” It’s about a couple of smart-ass college kids who take long walks and imagine the lives of the strangers they see, then engage in arcane, show-offy arguments about them. In other words (and here I make a completely unverifiable assertion), it’s about Don DeLillo in college.
“Todd was a determined thinker who liked to work a fact or an idea to the seventh level of interpretation,” the narrator tells us, adding, a bit later, “We worked spontaneous variations on the source material of our surroundings.”
Sure sounds like DeLillo.
We get page after page of this talk, to little emotional end, but what redeems the story is its vision of literature’s transformative power. The narrator takes to reading Dostoyevsky novels in the library. “Why did this seem magical?” he asks. “Why did I sometimes lie in bed, moments from sleep, and think of the book in the empty room, open to the page where I’d stopped reading?”
The Angel Esmeralda also includes characters who wind up migrating into DeLillo’s novels. The title story, for instance, is about a group of nuns ministering to denizens of the South Bronx, chief among them the doubt-ridden Sister Edgar, who later becomes a bit player in Underworld. In the story, DeLillo grants his heroine a crowning moment of grace, while in the novel she meets a less inspiring end, dying amid “the first faint snow of another dim winter falling softly on the unknown streets.”
As moving as Sister Edgar’s saga might be, its presence made me yearn for “Pafko at the Wall,” the majestic novella that was originally published in Harper’s Magazine and later served as the prologue to Underworld. For “Pafko,” it seems to me, represents DeLillo at his finest. Here we encounter not just the sophisticated cultural observer, hemmed in by jaded cerebrations, but the exuberant kid from the Bronx, eager to portray the raptures of his own childhood.
Using an iconic American moment as his ballast, DeLillo introduces the dazzling cross-section of celebrities who witnessed Bobby Thompson’s shot, from Jackie Gleason to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, himself about to learn that the Russians have tested their first atomic bomb. But the story does more than burrow into the psyches of the bigwigs and swells. DeLillo also introduces Cotter Martin, a Harlem teenager who sneaks into the game and winds up with Thompson’s ball. It’s a story about raw personal longing, an exaltation of the subjective experience within the seething masses.
“Longing on a large scale is what makes history,” DeLillo writes. “[Cotter] is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations.”
I have probably read the ensuing scene, in which Cotter jumps the turnstile with a gang of other truants, fifty times or more, and my chest still hammers as he makes his getaway and we arrive at the intersection of the author and his creation: “The bloodrush of a dozen strides brings him into eloquence.”
There are thousands of insights to be drawn from DeLillo’s work. But in “Pafko at the Wall”—as in his early, delirious novels—the fundamental lesson is that human desires matter terribly. They are, against the tide of historical circumstance, and the cruel ultimatum of death, all we have and everything.
I read several of the stories in The Angel Esmeralda on a plane ride back from California. Somewhere over Ohio, the plane hit a patch of turbulence. My wife, a nervous flier who had dosed herself with Valium, tensed up. Our two-year-old son, whose head was resting on her lap, pawed the air. Our daughter, age four, said brightly, “We just fell ten feet, Mama!”
Then we plunged another ten feet.
I closed my eyes and a vision descended, like a dark wing. I saw our tiny plane plummeting toward the earth and Erin gathering the kids to her, to protect them, to hug them, to cover their bodies with her own. It was the kind of invasive thought that comes to tired parents near the end of a long cross-country flight. But it was also a powerful reminder of the human arrangement. We live within our dread. The fear of death dogs our days like a jagged shadow. And it makes those of us who write desperate to shake down the language for meanings that might survive us.
But none of those meanings amount to much more than specks of ink on paper until they take root in the emotional life of a reader. This is the peril of those artists who subscribe to the edicts of the Great Minds School. Too often they use the radiance of their ideas as a shield against their own unbearable feelings. There is no writer on earth whose intellect is more supple or assured than Don DeLillo’s. But his best language stems from the absurd revelations of the heart.
All of which is by way of confessing that, when the plane finally settled again, I put his new story collection away for a time and, a bit guiltily, picked up my dog-eared copy of White Noise. I read: “In the dark, the mind runs on like a devouring machine, the only thing awake in the universe.”
Fair enough. But the heart feels what it needs to feel, too.
Photo: Joyce Ravid