Visions of the American Berserk
Two master novelists tackle baseball, urban blight, and the counterculture in postwar America.
Houghton Mifflin, $26 Underworld
Among leading contemporary American novelists, it would be difficult to find two writers whose styles differ more than Philip Roth and Don DeLillo. Roth's novels are memorable for their characters, for Alexander Portnoy and Nathan Zuckerman, and for the ways in which these loud, libidinous men work out the many permutations of selfhood in modern America. Even when Roth applies his wit and intelligence to social issues and the larger movements of American history, whether the ins and outs of being an assimilated Jew or the World War II generation's bafflement when faced with the iconoclastic liberties of its children, he nearly always ends up revealing more about character than about society. In contrast, DeLillo's White Noise, Running Dog, and Libra, though filled with their share of rich characterizations, are memorable less for their characters than for the way the author brings outside forces to bear on them, creating uncanny reverberations between their inner lives and the Babel of popular culture. Athrob with parallels and echoes, portentous coincidences, and intimations of conspiracy, the promise and threat of hidden truths, DeLillo's novels are primarily concerned with the many permutations of America.
Because these two American masters work in such different keys, it's interesting that American Pastoral and Underworld draw from much of the same raw material as they tackle post-World War II American history. Both books use baseball as an admission ticket into the American experience; both feature homicides as turning points in the lives of their protagonists; both deal at some length with the blight of once-vibrant urban neighborhoods; and both address the effects of the counterculture. Both, finally, marshal their similar elements in an attempt to address the problem of chaos and order in postwar America. Roth telescopes all these topics and themes into narrow focus as he tells the story of one man and how his life, and the regnant social order he represents, is shattered by the convulsions of the sixties. Underworld, on the other hand, is a satellite picture of a half-century of American history during the Cold War, a network of cross-referencing scenes and narratives that, taken together, track the cultural weather. Most fundamentally, American Pastoral presents the American tumult simply as the battle between the
forces of chaos and the forces of order, while Underworld offers a much more expansive and ultimately more illuminating picture of an America swirling with many different dispensations.
American Pastoral is the story of Seymour "Swede" Levov, a third-generation American Jew from Newark, New Jersey, whose life initially embodies the American dream but deteriorates into the story of Job without the happy ending. What sustains the book is the ferocity of the language, which, at its best, approaches the heat of a biblical prophet's protest to God. Except there is no God in American Pastoral. There's only America--and it isn't listening.
Seymour Levov is the son of a man who built a successful glove manufacturing business in Newark. An outstanding three-sport high school athlete, he's the golden boy of the class of 1945--like his country after the war, he is both victorious and virtuous. Blond and beautiful, he is "christened" "Swede" by his basketball coach. In the words of Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's narrating alter ego, the Swede is "a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get." World War II ends before Swede can get into the fray, but life in the Marines, especially on a barnstorming baseball team, integrates him even more fully into America. Though he has the talent to take a shot at the major leagues, Swede goes to work for his father and marries Mary Dawn Dwyer, who is not only a shiksa but also the former Miss New Jersey. The Newark Maid glove company grows under Swede's direction, making him a millionaire and allowing the Levovs to move out of Newark to the well-heeled exurb of Old Rimrock. With their daughter, Merry, Swede and Dawn inhabit the very house about which Swede had fantasized in high school, an old stone house whose architecture he loves, tellingly, because of "all that irregularity regularized."
Then the fifties give way to the sixties, and for the Levovs nothing will be regular again. As the Vietnam War divides the country, Merry, like many privileged kids, begins to deride the accomplishments and values of her parents. And then, at the age of sixteen, determined to bring the war back home, Merry bombs the Old Rimrock post office, killing a man who just happens to be depositing his mail. She disappears, after
initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede's castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral--into the indigenous American berserk.
The bomb explodes early in the novel. Afterward, Roth furiously whipsaws the action between the time before the blast and the period after it, juxtaposing Swede's past with the travails that continue to befall him. Among those travails: Swede's beloved Newark is destroyed by race riots; Dawn grows alternately hostile and remote; and Merry, after five years on the lam, turns up and breaks Swede's heart all over again. Throughout it all, the Swede perseveres with stupendous decency. Partly out of a sense of obligation to his now mostly black employees and partly to convince Merry, wherever she may be, that he's not the racist exploiter she has accused him of being, he keeps the glove company in Newark long after other manufacturers have fled. He nurses his wife through her depression and her grief, enduring her bitter accusations and recriminations while indulging her every whim. He opposes the war in Vietnam. And none of it does any good.
The final section of the book revolves around a dinner party at the Levov's during which even the sanctuary of Old Rimrock is revealed to be a snake pit of misunderstanding and malice. The scene shows Roth at his broadly satirical best. It's 1974, and Swede's father, Lou, a gruff man with an eighth-grade education and no room for moral ambiguity in his soul, rages against Nixon and the porno film Deep Throat. For his troubles, he is rewarded with a fork in his eye, courtesy of the drunk wife of the man with whom Dawn, as Swede has just discovered, is having an affair. The book ends with one of the guests, a literature professor, laughing at the spectacle of the ruin:
And then this large, unimpeded social critic in a caftan could not help herself. Marcia. . . began to laugh at their obtuseness to the flimsiness of the whole contraption, to laugh and laugh at them, all pillars of a society that, much to her delight, was going rapidly under--to laugh and to relish, as some people, historically, always seem to do, how far the rampant disorder had spread, enjoying enormously the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.
Before the novel reaches this nihilistic final note, Roth takes us on a series of excursions into Swede's past as Zuckerman tries to imagine Swede trying to understand what went wrong: "Yes, the cause of the disaster has for him to be a transgression. How else would the Swede explain it to himself?" But there is no explanation. Roth raises the possibility that this event or that behavior can explain the Levovs' demise only to explode the notion that anything--Merry's stutter, her parents smothering perfection, the time Swede obliged when his daughter asked him to kiss her on the lips--can explain it at all.
When Merry resurfaces, Roth makes it clear that what happens to Swede is shapeless. Having moved furtively across America, having been raped more than once, and having killed three other people in another bombing, Merry now proclaims herself a Jain. What she is, in Swede's eyes and in Roth's, is a crazy homeless woman who wears an old stocking over her mouth so she won't accidentally inhale bugs. She lives as a squatter in the riot-hollowed heart of Newark, where she greets her father with a senseless serenity that is the flip side of her earlier, senseless rage. This is how Roth describes their reunion:
They are crying intensely, the dependable father whose center is the source of all order, who could not overlook or sanction the smallest sign of chaos--for whom keeping chaos far at bay had been intuition's chosen path to certainty, the rigorous daily given of life--and the daughter who is chaos itself.
Because it enters so fully into the proposition that it is chaos itself that undoes the Swede, American Pastoral is a puzzling novel. As an entertainment, it is grimly engrossing, although it takes too long to end as the drumbeat of disillusion thumps on. More puzzling is its rather cranky stance as a social critique. It's true that Roth punctures the American dream by showing how Swede's faith in the perfectability of life was just that--a dream, a fantasy. But that's not hard work, and if the limit of Roth's intent had been to engage in such unchallenging sport, the novel would not be nearly as good as it is. In fact, what lingers in a the mind after reading American Pastoral is the worthiness and vitality of what Swede desired. The evocations of Newark's industrial heyday are marvelous, and the passages about the love and dedication that Swede and his father bring to the business of making gloves are profoundly moving. Roth saves some of his best writing for Lou Levov's rants, often seconded by the increasingly bitter Swede, over the demise of Newark and America's apparent failure to reward his faith in the middle-class virtues. Lou's a blowhard, but his angry bafflement is poignant. It is in these passages that Roth's language, despite its contemporary rhythms and idioms, most clearly recalls the biblical language of lament with which the prophets complain to God about injustice.
But this very passion presents a problem. We know from his previous novels that Roth has a more spacious view of America than those tongue-clucking conservatives who blame all of our current social ills on the permissiveness unleashed in the sixties. And yet, in American Pastoral, Roth doesn't bestow nearly the same quality of attention on what destroys Swede as he does on Swede. If Swede is the logical extension of the American dream and those who believed in it, Merry is merely the illogical extension of the forces that disbelieved it. After all, most opponents of the war did not blow up post offices. Although the book rages eloquently against "the flagrant childishness, the sentimental grandiosity of the self-deception" exhibited by Merry and those like her in their foaming objection to everything established, Roth never takes on the non-grandiose and the non-foaming. The novel presents Merry as nothing more than the screaming face of chaos, the avatar of utter vandalism. American Pastoral never addresses the extent to which those who rejected the image of America as well-mowed Old Rimrock struggled to articulate an alternate vision--descriptive or prescriptive--of American order.
What Roth calls the "American berserk" is the very thing to which Don DeLillo tries to give shape in the intricately interconnected pages of Underworld. In its articulation of a chaos theory of America, Underworld touches on the Cold War, consumerism and waste, the secret life of cities, the nuclear age, and, as all DeLillo's novels do, the constant and ubiquitous buzzing of popular culture. Far from suggesting the old testament language of moral lament, DeLillo's prose tends toward the oracular. His frame of reference is as pagan, indeed animistic, as Roth's is biblical. For DeLillo, every stray piece of cultural flotsam is in some sense alive and bears a potential for meaning.
Underworld opens with a magnificent prologue of some 60 pages. The scene is the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951, during the one-game playoff between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants won by the Giants on Bobby Thomson's fabled ninth-inning homer. An 11-year-old Harlem boy crashes the gate and eludes the guards before finding a seat in left field. Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and the saloonkeeper Toots Shor share a field-level box with J. Edgar Hoover. A messenger brings Hoover news that the Soviet Union has just completed its second successful test of an atomic bomb. Willie Mays takes a knee in the on-deck circle, unable to get a commercial jingle for razor blades out of his mind ("push-pull-click-click"). Paper and garbage start to fall from the stands. Gleason stuffs one hot dog too many into his mouth and throws up on Sinatra's shoes. Upon the head of Hoover there descends, from somewhere in the upper deck, a color reproduction torn from a copy of Life magazine of Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death. The Giants win the pennant, and the kid who sneaked into the stadium ends up winning the scuffle in the stands for Bobby Thomson's home run ball. This section, like the entire novel, is remarkable for its sense of whirring simultaneity and for the way the winds of dread ripple across the madcap surface.
From the Polo Grounds of 1951, DeLillo turns to the New Mexico dessert in the summer of 1992 and the person of Nick Shay, the man in whose possession Bobby Thomson's home run ball, years after the game, finally comes to rest. Born in the Bronx, Nick is now a middle-aged waste-disposal executive living in Phoenix. Nick's story, which the novel reveals in more or less reverse chronological order, is the story of a formless and thuggish youth who, after killing a man, slowly matures into a thoughtful individual struggling to hammer out a coherent sense of self. He's in New Mexico to track down Klara Sax, an older woman with whom he had a brief affair when he was seventeen. Klara is now a renowned artist currently overseeing an aesthetic analogue of the Manhattan Project, a huge endeavor that involves many people and the garish painting of B-52s decommissioned after the end of the Cold War. All the events and people in the novel intersect with the lives of Nick and Klara or, more frequently, strike them at glancing tangents. Underworld is not held togther by relationships of cause and effect but rather by the vaguer stuff of association, echo, and mirroring. Among the most inspired of the novel's doublings is J. Edgar Hoover's doppelganger, a Bronx nun named Sister Edgar, who, like Hoover, is obsessed with Communism and germs. Some of the book's many connections are ineffable quantum leaps. Esmeralda, a homeless Bronx girl of the 1990s, turns up pages later (but years earlier) in the mind of a manic Lenny Bruce, who's making a whirlwind tour of the country during the Cuban missile crisis. Underworld is obsessed--in both form and content--with the patterns of meaning in what Nick calls "the curious neuron web of lonely-chrome America."
The problem, of course, with patterns of meaning is that they are as likely to be malevolent as benevolent. Sister Edgar, "the Cold War nun who'd once lined the walls of her room with Reynolds Wrap as a safeguard against nuclear fallout," embodies the novel's mingling of potentially redemptive meaning and paranoia:
The serenity of immense design is missing from her life, authorship and moral form. . . .
It is not a question of disbelief. There is another kind of belief, a second force, insecure, untrusting, a faith that is spring-fed by the things we fear in the night, and she thinks she is succumbing.
And here's Nick's brother, Matt, a scientist who works in the defense industry, after smoking something he maybe should have avoided:
He knew he wasn't part of some superficial state that people like to borrow from when they say they're feeling paranoid. This was not secondhand. This was real and deep and true. It was all the one-syllable words that mean we aren't kidding. It was also familiar in some strange paleolithic root-eating way, a thing retained in the snake brain of early experience.
All the dread and hints of impersonal, overarching structure would be mere banality, however, a stoned dorm-room way of saying gee-whiz to the world's fullness, if DeLillo didn't evoke real, lived life with such care. Underworld, for all that it reads like the mad dream of some smoke-clouded sibyl, is grounded in a rigorous realism and enlivened by an inspired sense of humor. The humor shows up in the taut vernacular dialogue, in the uproarious renditions of Lenny Bruce's act. The realism is evident in DeLillo's detailed descriptions of life, especially life in the Bronx. In contrast to the incoherent urban ruin of Roth's Newark, DeLillo's Bronx hums with humanity. Sister Edgar and her companion, Sister Grace, represent a genuine spirituality amidst the broken city, the polar opposite of Merry Levov's delusions of Jain sainthood. Perhaps the novel's most engaging character is Albert Bronzini, Klara's ex-husband. A schoolteacher who remains in the South Bronx, he is reminiscent of James Joyce's Leopold Bloom in the quality of the attention he pays to the quotidian and the solace he is capable of taking from it. When Matt Shay, his former chess pupil, visits him and comments on the degradation of the neighborhood, Albert demurs:
No, go to Arthur Avenue, Matty. . . . This will restore your spirits. I took your mother to the pork store the other day to show her the ceiling. Hundreds of hanging salamis, such bounty and fullness, the place teeming with smells and textures, the ceiling covered completely. I said, Rosemary, look. A gothic cathedral of pork.
Time after time, and often at the most unexpected moments, Underworld surprises a reader by getting beyond awestruck utterance and rumblings of portent to the intimate heart of how its individual characters confront the confusion of the world everyday.
"What's the point of waking up in the morning," asks Marvin Lundy, an avid collector of baseball memorabilia through whom Thomson's ball passes, "if you don't try to match the enormousness of the known forces in the world with something powerful in your own life?" Marvin is not particularly comfortable in the world: he believes the future is written in the birthmark on Gorbachev's head and wonders darkly why Greenland is never in the same place on any two maps. Sure he's paranoid, but he also shows us that the logic of paranoia, after all, isn't all that different from the logic of art. A delusion, no less than a masterpiece, is an effort to impose order on the profusion of experience and stimuli. Marvin doesn't want any old fielder's glove to fade away into meaningless oblivion, so he adds it to the collection in his New Jersey basement. With an exquisite tenderness for all his characters, DeLillo illustrates how Marvin's logic lies behind Hoover's obsessive construction and collection of files, behind the delusion of mastery sported by the novel's serial killer, behind the elaborate work of a New York graffiti artist. It's what drives Klara Sax to transmute the forbidding machinery of the Cold War into something beautiful. And it's what ultimately drives DeLillo to scour the marginal precincts of history in order to collect as much of the American experience as he can shape between two covers.
In it's ambition, Underworld belongs with such icons of excess as Gravity's Rainbow and Ulysses. Yet it has an integrity of voice and an accessibility that those behemoths lack. Despite the wide range of its attentions and its nonlinear trajectory, it is not at all ungainly. It is a monumental feat of imagination that succeeds, to a remarkable extent, in making us see much of the last half of the American century at once.
Of the two books, American Pastoral is the one, with its chronicle of Swede's afflictions and its biblical broaching of the question of justice, that visibly nods to the Book of Job. But Underworld is closer in spirit to it. The Book of Job derives its power not from the happy ending in which Job ends up with "twice as much as he had before" but from the intimations of cosmic order given to Job after he listens to God speak from out of the whirlwind: "Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?"Underworld looks much harder at the expanse of the earth and offers readers a vision of a world governed not by mere randomness but by something--with its proliferation of patterns and subpatterns and counterpatterns--very like a holy mystery. Underworld is a more rewarding book than American Pastoral because, aesthetically and morally, it's more interesting to explore and give shape to what isn't understood than simply to call it "chaos" and send it into manichean battle with something called "order".