My Writers: Don DeLillo


The super-secret, ever-so-intriguing backstory behind the images chosen to accompany these “My Writers” posts is this: as often as I can, I try to select the book cover that corresponds to the specific edition of the title that was my first complete exposure to the author in question, their first book which I read from cover to cover. That won’t always be the case, in part because the interweb doesn’t necessarily have absolutely everything out there for the taking (or, for that matter, for the downloading, subsequent storing on my Photobucket account and sharing with the world). Also because there may simply be times–as is the case with the next installment of this feature–when I can’t say with confidence which novel was my first actual reading experience. I share this now not because of a similar dilemma with the work of Don DeLillo, but because this is the first time that I’m sorely tempted to break my own rule and put a different dust jacket up there.

Instead, I’ll follow my typical trajectory and begin at the beginning. My beginning, anyway. Libra was first published in the summer of 1988. He was no newcomer at this point, having published novels with some regularity since 1971 (it is his tenth novel, although arriving at that number requires the inclusion of 1980’s Amazons, a book which he’s apparently never publicly acknowledged is his handiwork), but it was an especially key release. Libra was the follow-up to White Noise, his smartly satirical breakthrough from 1985. More so than any other time in his career to that point, the literary world was paying keen attention to what he would deliver. He delivered an abstract {tour de force} which imagined the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and the shady machinations that led to a blood-spattered Lincoln Continental in Dallas one sunny November afternoon.

I’d never read anything like this before. The prose was deliberately, strikingly oblique, extracting meaning from language that wasn’t poetic in a flowery sense but as a kind of terse, damaged blank verse. The descriptions were simultaneously vivid and elusive, the dialogue like echoing whip cracks and the story burrowed into the roiling psyches of its various characters with an almost shocking relentlessness. My taste has previously been resolutely straightforward, favoring novelists who told a story directly and clearly. It was stunning to discover someone who treated language like percolating mercury that could barely be contained. It thrilled me and staggered me in equal measure. My recollection is that it took me a long time to get through the book and reading it required an uncommon intensity of concentration. It was quite a while before I mustered the nerve to crack a DeLillo book again.

But the next one I read made me an eternal convert. DeLillo had been admirably prolific throughout his career to that point, never going more than three years (again, as along as Amazons is included) without a new effort. In fact, it was three years after Libra that his next book came out, 1991’s Mao II. Then came the first extended gap, the end of which brought the mammoth Underworld in the fall of 1997. At 827 pages in its hardback first edition, the novel was pure astonishment, wrapping together nearly a half-century of American life in a deliriously ambitious narrative that ostensibly centers on a waste management executive named Nick Shay but sometimes feels as if it’s managed the embed the totality of endlessly messy life right onto the page. When I finished it, I was convinced that I’d read something that would eventually find its place into the canon alongside the most revered works of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck and the like, effectively defining an entire era in its tumultuous paragraphs. If nothing else, I’m confident that the novel’s lengthy prologue–titled “The Triumph of Death” in the book, titled “Pafko at the Wall” when it was published on its own five years earlier–stands as one of the singular writing achievements of the twentieth century.

I’ve read other DeLillo works since (even backtracking to White Noise), but Underworld remains my touchstone. It’s not just the exemplar of what I hope to discover any time I crack a DeLillo novel, but indeed anytime I give myself over to fiction. I want to be transported, stunned, turned around. I want the feeling of being enervated and energized at the same time, a completely paradoxical sensation that I would think impossible if Underworld hadn’t proved the contrary all those years ago. In a literal sense, my journey with DeLillo began with Libra. In a truer sense, it was with Underworld.


There. That does make me feel better.

An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan

29 thoughts on “My Writers: Don DeLillo

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