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Underworld is a postmodern novel written in 1997 by Don DeLillo. It was nominated for the National Book Award, is one of his better-known novels, and was a best-seller.

A survey of eminent authors and critics conducted by The New York Times found Underworld the runner-up to best work of American fiction of the past 25 years; it garnered 11 of 125 votes, finishing behind only Toni Morrison's Beloved (15 votes).

Plot introduction

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 Americamarker. 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
  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

Explanation of the novel's title

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.

Plot summary

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. (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 thirty-two dollars and forty-five cents.

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 juvenile detention center 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.

Characters in Underworld

  • 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 – Nick’s mother.
  • Jimmy – Nick’s father who disappeared when Nick was 11. 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 Vietnammarker 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 third 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.
  • Albert Bronzini – Klara’s husband and Matty’s chess instructor.
  • George the Waiter
  • 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.

Literary significance and reception

The response from critics was very positive with David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle declaring Underworld DeLillo's “best novel and perhaps that most elusive of creatures, a great American novel." The novel has been called ambitious and highly powerful.

Several critics did note that it was overly long and could have benefited from some additional editing. On, Laura Miller wrote that “Nick's secret, the one that supposedly provides the book's suspense, proves anticlimactic."

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.

Allusions and references

Allusions to other works

The novel has J. Edgar Hoover utterly intrigued by The Triumph of Death, a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He is first introduced to 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) and later in the book there is a reference to him actually obtaining a print.

Allusions to actual history, geography and current science

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'smarker atomic weapons program (including their testing groundsmarker in Kazakhstanmarker).

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

Awards and nominations

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

Underworld was a nominated finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize.

In addition, Underworld was the winner of the 2000 William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


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