Delillo Hits A Home Run

DON DELILLO LOOKS CORNERED. He's come into Manhattan from his suburban New York home for an interview at his publisher's midtown office, and the only thing casual about him is his attire--black chinos, blue work shirt, brogues. He's lean and fit at 60, but he's tense from hairline to toes. Only his eyes, the color of chocolate and mobile as mercury, look animated, and they sparkle when he begins to describe the origins of his brilliant new novel, Underworld (827 pages. Scribner. $27.50). How he was reading the paper over breakfast several years ago when he saw a story about the Giants-Dodgers playoff game where Bobby Thomson's homer--""the shot heard round the world''--won the 1951 National League pennant. How he later discovered that on the same day the Russians tested an atomic bomb. From that pair of headlines, DeLillo drew the inspiration for ""Underworld,'' his full-length portrait, dark and masterly, of cold-war America.

""The ball game was a unifying and largely joyous event, a kind of event in which people come out of their houses in order to share their feelings,'' he says. ""With the onset of the cold war, the communal sense started to become associated not with celebration but with danger and loss. The catastrophic events since then, events framed and defined by television, seem to have become predominant, events such as assassination, terrorist acts, even natural disasters. In my private record of events, this ball game represents a sort of transitional moment between the second world war and the beginning of the nuclear age.''

DeLillo goes on like that, off the cuff but on the money, for most of an hour. You can see why a publisher would want to send such an articulate artist on a promotional tour, especially when the publisher has paid somewhere around $1 million for a manuscript by a critically acclaimed author who has written 11 novels and never had a best seller. And while DeLillo is famously not fond of the spotlight, he's trying hard to do his part. He doesn't like personal questions (he's married, no kids, likes movies and jazz). But if you want to talk about his books or writing, he's game. The only problem: while Don DeLillo the raconteur is eloquent, the story of how he wrote ""Underworld'' is never quite as interesting as the stories inside the novel itself.

The brilliant opening section at the Polo Grounds in 1951 announces that here is a writer in total control. Orchestrating a cacophony of voices and characters, DeLillo seamlessly blends fiction with fact. Cotter Martin, a black teenager who's skipped school to watch the game, is every bit as vivid as Frank Sinatra, Toots Shor, Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover, who are watching from a box. DeLillo re-creates the crowd frenzy and the tension with dozens of precisely calibrated details. Willie Mays unable to concentrate because a jingle keeps going through his head. ""Push-pull click-click, change blades that quick.'' Gleason vomits on Sinatra's ""stout oxford shoes and fine lisle hose'' just when Thomson homers. The fans in the upper decks throw down a blizzard of paper, including a Life magazine reproduction of Bruegel's painting ""The Triumph of Death,'' which falls into Hoover's hands. Perusing the images of the dead ravaging the living, he wonders what secrets the Russian bomb will inspire. ""For every atmospheric blast,'' he figures, ""a hundred plots go underground, to spawn and skein.''

DeLillo has fashioned fiction from fact before, most famously in ""Libra,'' his novel about Lee Harvey Oswald. But the heavily researched ""Libra'' had a muscle-bound feel. ""Underworld'' is looser. DeLillo irreverently imagines Hoover at Truman Capote's black-and-white ball in 1966, channels Lenny Bruce and tosses off his own one-liners: ""Famous people don't want to be told that you have a quality in common with them. It makes them think they have something crawling in their clothes.''

The narrative heart of ""Underworld'' belongs to Nick Shay, a waste-management expert, and Klara Sax, a conceptual artist. DeLillo introduces them in 1992, in the Arizona desert, where Sax is painting a fleet of abandoned air force bombers. Artfully excavating, DeLillo moves back in time, working toward 1952, when Nick and Klara had a brief affair in the Bronx, where he was a teenager and she was the wife of a high-school teacher. Otherwise their stories run parallel, in counterpoint. Nick, contending with life, hides the garbage of cold-war culture. Klara transmutes military waste into bizarre beauty.

""Underworld's'' bricklike heft is deceptive, like a fat man who turns out to be light on his feet. Obsessed with waste and secrets, it's also funny and, in the closing section devoted to the Bronx of Shay's youth--and DeLillo's--affectingly personal. Discussing this section, DeLillo defrosts and grins. ""The past spoke to me, it's as simple as that. I found I could remember things I hadn't thought of in 45 years. The way people were always pushing cars. The way a woman used to rap a coin on the window to call her kid in from the street.''

""Underworld'' is a book that, once you've finished it, demands to be reread. There's pleasure on every page of this pitch-perfect evocation of a sour, anxious half century. The pleasure comes from incident and insight, but more than anything else it comes from language. DeLillo has heard America singing, talking, weeping, kvetching, and he hasn't missed a syllable. This novel is a symphony of sound. ""I'm always happier getting beyond politics and history and into language,'' DeLillo says. ""This is what I do as a writer. I try to create clear and compelling sentences.'' ""Underworld'' proves that nobody does it better.