Underworld – a modern classic?

I once bought a book from a book shop (those were the days!).  I can’t remember what the book was but I remember the plastic bag it came in.  On it was a Mark Twain quote: ‘A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.’  There’s a lot of truth in that.  I’m sure we’ve all got classics on our bookshelf, physical or virtual, that, for whatever reason, lie unopened or half finished.


I try to mix up my reading so that I have a healthy dose of contemporary fiction, non-fiction and ‘classics’.  I decided recently that it was time for a classic and a meaty one at that.   A not-so-brief search on goodreads, Amazon, etc. led me to a not-so-brief novel (827 pages): Underworld by Don DeLillo; published in 1997, a nominated finalist for the ’98 Pulitzer Prize and runner-up for the New York Times’ best work of American fiction of the past 25 years (the winner was Beloved by Toni Morrison as you asked!).  Sounds like a classic, albeit a modern one, to me.

The novel has been described as an example of the ‘great American novel’, a phrase used for other such modern works as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.  Like both of those novels, Underworld is ambitious in its scope.  Its characters include Frank Sinatra, J Edgar Hoover, Lennie Bruce and everyday folk, the latter of whom, we return to regularly throughout the book, including Nick Shay, a waste management executive and one of the book’s main protagonists.  The book spans the Cold War period kicking off with an extended description of a famous 1951 Giants-Dodgers game: a self-contained novella (and was published as such) whose tentacles wind their way through the rest of the book, which encapsulates the Cuban Missile Crisis, a motorway serial killer, AIDS, waste management, the mafia, etc.


(Photo: LIFE magazine)

The author grew up in Brooklyn and this comes through in the book.  You can almost smell the air, the combination of heat coming off the New York pavements, doused by  the water from the ubiquitous fire hydrant.  The descriptions are wonderful, one of my favourites being, ‘…he looks out over the rooftops, the tar beaches with their clotheslines and pigeon coops and splatted condoms…’

The characters are also interesting and well-written and the novel discreetly links them creating a more cohesive work, while adopting a non-linear narrative.  Despite this, or even because of this, the novel is sprawling and disconnected.  Perhaps this is the point.  For me, what was lacking was a stronger sense of narrative and plot, both of which appear to be lacking in a number of so-called modern classics.  Or perhaps it felt sprawling and disconnected because I read it on tube journeys when instead I could have invested larger chunks of time to it.

Regardless, it’s not really a page-turner if that’s what you’re after.

In the time it’s taken me to write this blog, I’ve read The Devotion of Suspect X, a 2005 novel by Keigo Higashino.  If you want a page-turner and enjoy detective novels with a twist then this comes highly recommended.