In 1979, at the age of forty-two, the distinctly American writer Don DeLillo made a change that would have a profound impact on his work: he left the United States. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that year —his first accolade after a decade’s run of his first six novels—he used the money to decamp with his wife to Athens, Greece, a decision that might have been prompted by a midcareer plateau. His novels until then had the classic trademarks of any cult writer, critically received and publicly ignored. They were also products of their time, madcap plots that laced together football and nuclear war, parodied Rolling Stone and rock and roll, and bedded Wall Street hubris with harebrained terrorism. But the reliable romp he injected into these early works was wearing thin on critics. Running Dog, published the previous year, about the search for a pornographic tape involving Hitler, was described in the Times as “not so much a novel as a swift and skillful exhibition of landscapes, characters and precarious situations . . . an air of weariness, of routine violence and acceptable paranoia, of intrigue without point or profit.”
It was in Greece that DeLillo’s sense of writerly purpose was reinvigorated, and The Names, the novel that DeLillo would write there, proved to be a critical turning point. “This novel was a major departure for me,” he wrote in a short intro for the book, “out of the 1970s and into another decade, another culture and a broader narrative expanse.” He wasn’t kidding—The Names is the first entry in two collections of work assembled by the Library of America honoring DeLillo, one of only a small handful of writers to receive the tribute during their lifetime. The first collection published last year collected his three true* novels from the ’80s that, along with The Names, included his true breakout White Noise (1985) and the best-selling Libra (1988). The second collection, released last autumn, gathers his two novels of the ’90s, that is Mao II (1991) and his colossal Underworld (1997), where the sun of golden era DeLillo sets and a quieter, crepuscular era begins.
It is unusual for the best-known works of a writer’s oeuvre to be contained entirely in an unbroken run, but DeLillo was an autodidact, learning how to be a novelist while on the job. A former ad firm copywriter with a knack for the persuasiveness of words, he lucked into novel writing, a job afforded to him because two editors at Houghton Mifflin had taken a chance on the cold submitted manuscript that was to become his debut, Americana. Telling the story of a corporate TV exec who sets off an American road trip to make an autobiographical film, reviewers found the plot confusing, but its language thrilling. “Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year,” is an opening line that promises never to slacken. While the next five novels emphasized plot, the more introspective Americana resembles the writing DeLillo would come produce in the ’80s and ’90s.
The Names isn’t so much a one-eighty as it is a bridge between DeLillo’s early work and his more mature period. The exhibitions of lyrical observation and character studies and conspiratorial intrigue remain—the titles refer to an assassination cult hunting the narrator—but this is also a novel of divorce and fatherhood, of the near mystic power of language, and of expats in a part of the world increasingly hostile to Americans and the West. The novel’s narrator, James Aston, provides risk analysis of the Middle East for political insurance policy group that he later discovers to be a front for the CIA. The agency is central to Running Dog, but its presence in The Names is more palpable. DeLillo writes that while living in Athens in 1979, the city had become “a refuge for people fleeing the revolution in Iran and also a target for far-left Greek terrorists.” This turn of events formed a cryptic book, but the real heart of the novel, where it comes alive, is DeLillo’s voice, one that better narrated the world around him and served as a locksmith to its secrets, conjuring spell-binding passages such as these:
I found myself study doors, shutters, mosque lamps, carpets. Surfaces were dense and abstract. Where figural things were present they were rendered as nuances of line or curve, taken out of nature to the level of perfect repetition. Even writing was design, not meant to be read, as though some part of some unbearable revelation. I didn’t know the names of things.
DeLillo returned to the United States in 1982, moving to Bronxville, a suburb just north of New York City and home to Sarah Lawrence College. For his next book, White Noise, the global purview of The Names was shrunk down to the locality of the university town, its mysticism evolving into sagacious black comedy. Narrated by Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at College-on-the-Hill, the novel follows his existential commentary on the terrors and placations of American culture. But it’s Gladney and his wife Babette’s fear of death that strings the book along. What starts off as a campus satire rolls into the Airborne Toxic Event, a humanmade chemical disaster to which he is exposed. The potential of death lurks throughout the novel to humorous and chilling effect. “All plots tend to move deathward,” Gladney says prophetically to his class. “This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorists plots, narratives plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer to death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.”
White Noise won the National Book award in 1985 and brought DeLillo into a kind of reverent fame. He became someone to read. People began muttering about his prophetic ability to understand how the modern American psyche was developing. But it was where it came from, a singular event in November 1963, to which DeLillo next turned his attention.
In a rare pivot to nonfiction published in 1983, DeLillo wrote how the assassination of John F. Kennedy unraveled a sense of coherent reality most Americans shared up to that time, displacing America’s post-war glimmer to usher in an era of social upheaval. The essay seeded Libra, the novel that followed White Noise, but in fiction DeLillo played out a theory of the assassination as a botched job from disgruntled CIA men with Lee Harvey Oswald as their main stooge. A heavily researched work of fiction, the book follows an array of characters with links to the assassination plot (including a caricature of DeLillo going through piles of information about the Kennedy assassination) and follows Oswald from boyhood to death. The book reads like a jigsaw puzzle, jumping around perspectives and bit scenes, all in third person, and it’s in the collection of backgrounds and motives that lift the book beyond Kennedy (who appears only to die) to tell a lively story of his killer(s) and the pursuit of infamy. As one character says to Oswald when it is discovered that Kennedy’s motorcade will pass Oswald’s workplace,
“You see what this means? How it shows what you’ve got to do? We didn’t arrange your job in that building or set up the motorcade route. We don’t have that kind of reach of power. They’re something else that’s generating this event. A pattern outside experience. Something that jerks you out of the spin of history. I think you’ve had it backwards all this time. You wanted to enter history. Wrong approach, Leon. What you really want it out. Get out. Jump out. Find your place and name on another level.”
Libra became DeLillo’s first bestseller and his final novel of the ’80s. In the span of three books, he had risen from obscurity to prominence. This is where the first volume ends, with triumph. But the ’90s would pose new challenges. Once again, he was to enter a new decade, a changing America. Once again, a kind of terrorism was to become his subject. Mao II, his first effort of the ’90s (it takes its name from a series of Andy Warhol screen prints), is like a spirited sequel to The Names. It follows Bill Gray, a novelist who hasn’t published a book in decades and is wrestling with his purpose, finding one in the possibility of trading himself to free a hostage poet held by a terrorist organization. “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous. And the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art.” Out of these five works, Mao II is the most metaphysical, a book-length essay masquerading as a novel.
Most of the ’90s, however, DeLillo devoted to Underworld, what some critics have hailed as his magnum opus, his Great American novel. It is certainly a grand novel, at 826 pages, and by far his meatiest, with numerous side-stories led by a long cast of characters. Most central is that of a waste management executive named Nick Shay and the famous “shot heard round the world” baseball, which has never been traced back to the catcher in the stands, but whose trajectory of ownership eventually lands in the possession of one of Shay’s associates. But he and the baseball will move on their own arcs, gravitating into their historical wake of depraved fathers, missing fathers, high-brow artists, graffiti artists, nuns, priests, serial killers, architects of the nuclear power and Lenny Bruce, appearing in a fifty-year sprawl, from the advent of the Cold War America to the advent of the internet. The novel snowballs to a global scope and because of it, becomes a novel without a single climax, a novel that amalgamates and transcends DeLillo’s previous works. DeLillo literally touches God in this novel, only to fall right back to earth with his next: 2001’s The Body Artist, a quiet novella.
But there is something afforded by reading both volumes, all 2,200 pages. Codas, cosmologies, patterns, verbal tics, these are the nuances one picks up reading a sizable offering of a writer’s work. It’s not exclusive to DeLillo, but his oeuvre rewards the dedicated reader. There are turns of phrase, snippets of dialogue, descriptions of land and people that reoccur. To the general reader, this is all detail mining, but a DeLillo novel is in the details, and the details are mapped in language, speech, aphorisms, even the narration of plot. It’s why James Aston explains vocabulary to his novel-writing boy; it’s why Jack Gladney’s son Heinrich gives a rousing speech to survivors of the Airborne Toxic Event; it’s why Lee Harvey Oswald is determined to read Marx and learn Russian; it’s why Bill Gray finds that words of novelists are challenged by the actions of terrorists; it’s why a Jesuit priest demands that to save his soul, Nick Shay need learn the names of things. To paraphrase the last line of The Names: DeLillo’s offering is language.