Underworld is a novel by American author Don DeLillo, published in 1997. The sprawling novel portrays the alienation of American society in the late 20th century. Since publication, the novel has won numerous awards and been praised as one of the preeminent works of contemporary American fiction.
This guide is written using the 2022 Picador edition.
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Content Warning: The source material includes references to sexual abuse, rape, racism, bigoted violence and language, and drug abuse.
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Underworld is told in a nonlinear structure. In the Prologue, a young Black boy named Cotter Martin attends the National League baseball game between the New York Giants and their rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the audience, the celebrities watch the game. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, is told about the Soviet Union detonating a nuclear bomb. Cotter befriends a white man and witnesses the famous Shot Heard ’Round the World, a home run by Bobby Thomson. The ball falls into Cotter’s part of the stands, and, after a brief struggle, he emerges with the ball. He runs home, ball in hand. Later, his father, Manx Martin, takes the baseball without his son knowing. Manx plans to sell the baseball to help his family financially, even though Cotter wants to keep it.
In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, a waste-management executive named Nick Shay drives across the desert in search of an artist named Klara Sax. She is famous for repainting abandoned military airplanes. Early in his life, Nick had a brief but memorable affair with Klara. He is happy to find that she still remembers him. In the modern day, Nick lives unhappily with his wife, Marian. He is now the owner of the baseball retrieved by Cotter Martin, but no one believes that it is real. Nick has been unfaithful in his marriage, and Marian is having an affair with his colleague and friend, Brian Glassic. When Nick was younger, his life was changed when he accidently shot a man. This tragic event is only referred to cryptically in the early parts of the novel. Nick is also affected by his father abandoning his family when he was young. Nick and his brother, Matt, debate whether their father—a small-time bookie—was killed by the mafia.
Unhappy at home, Marian continues her affair with Brian. Though he is reluctant, she wants him to become deeply involved in their affair. She occasionally takes heroin. Nick searches out Marvin Lundy, a man who has spent most of his life trying to track down the Bobby Thomson’s famous home-run ball. In the Bronx, a nun named Sister Edgar helps to care for the local homeless children. She taught both Nick and Matt when they were young. The homeless children are organized by a 16-year-old graffiti artist named Ismael who is famous for painting train carriages all around New York City. At the same time, many people become obsessed with the identity of a serial killer named the Texas Highway Killer when a video of one of his crimes is released.
In the late 1970s, Nick attends a waste-management conference and has an affair with a woman named Donna. During this time, Marvin spends his life tracking down the baseball. In the early 1970s, Klara Sax emerges as an artist. She has divorced her husband and developed an interest in collecting garbage and reusing it in her work. She dates a man named Miles who shows her films that are hard to find. During this time, Matt has served in Vietnam and then trained as a weapons scientist. He played chess when he was young but has become disillusioned with the game. Similarly, he no longer wants to work in the weapons industry. He still thinks fondly of his old chess teacher, Bronzini, who was once married to Klara.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a series of vignettes shows how the Cuban Missile Crisis affected society, how Nick had a brief but doomed relationship with a woman named Amy, how Nick was sent to a juvenile-detention facility for killing a man, and how the people in the old Bronx neighborhood reacted to the changing times. In a flashback, Manx meets Charles Wainwright and his son, Chuckie. He sells them Cotter’s baseball while they are standing in line to buy tickets at Yankee Stadium.
In the 1960s, after his father left, Nick dropped out of school. He had a brief love affair with Klara when she was still married to Bronzini. As he became increasingly embroiled in the criminal world, he met a drug addict named George the Waiter. During a misunderstanding with a shotgun, Nick shot and killed George. He was arrested.
The Epilogue returns to the contemporary day. While visiting Kazakhstan, Nick confronts Brian about the affair with Marian. He manages to resolve his problems with Marian, and they live a happy life. In the Bronx, the tragic murder of a young runaway named Esmeralda causes Sister Edgar to reinvigorate her faith shortly before her death.
By Don DeLillo