Don DiLillo’s Underworld is an atmospheric pastiche of nuclear age anxiety. After an interminable Prologue in which the Giants beat the Dodgers for the 1952 National League pennant, the book generally traces two stories – the story of the winning homerun baseball and the story of Nick Shay. The ball passes from the kid who nabbed it at the game to a series of collectors. Shay grows from a Bronx hooligan to an executive for a large waste management company in Phoenix.
What could be an engaging story – how a juvenile crime changed the trajectory of Shay’s life – is attenuated and addled by laying out the narrative backwards. The story starts in 1992, then moves back in time in chunks until 1952. This means that events in the beginning of the book only make sense later, and characters met early on fall into place later. This is a needlessly confusing and self conscious format. It is like looking at a scrapbook backwards, figuring out how the people and events fit together.
And, of course, a backwards timeline cannot really work if there is to be any resolution of the story, because “how the story ends” would have to come at the very beginning. That would make for a boring book. So the first section raises dramatic issues that hang there through the entire book, until they are wrapped up in a lengthy Epilogue set in 1992 again.
Also confusing are the myriad characters who are all linked, but some only tangentially. Many of the connections are artificial, mere excuses for elaborate digressions. The unifying theme of waste – particularly nuclear waste and destruction – further ties these side stories together, but not in any way enjoyable. DiLillo lingers over descriptions and rumors of disfigurement and deformity caused by nuclear testing, as well as other descriptions of wasted lives.
This book is too long, too self-righteous, too slow, too dark, too garbled, and simply too trying. DiLillo has his fans, but I am not one of them.
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