Danile Aaron in his essay “How to Read Don DeLillo”, argues that “nothing in DeLillo’s novels suggests a suppressed "Italian foundation"; hardly a vibration betrays an ethnic consciousness. His name could just as well be Don Smith or Don Brown.
His ethnic past doesn't serve for him as an "intoxicant of the imagination" (see: “Introducing Don DeLillo by Frank Lentricchia 1991 p67-8).
Similarly, Frank Lentricchia, in the same book argues: “…writers like DeLillo [ignore the advice to] write what you know … a snapshot of your neighborhood and your biography…Writers in DeLillo's tradition have too much ambition to stay home … rather writers such as DeLillo: leave their home, region, ethnicity, and the idiom they grew up with behind when they write. (emp. + p2)
Fred Gardaphe, disagreeing with both, argues that the “Italian foundations”, “ethnic consciousness” and “ethnic past” are in fact present in DeLillo’s work just not obvious: “While DeLillo … rarely chooses to deal with distinctly Italian American subjects … ethnicity and cultural difference underscore all of his work. He may have avoided or suppressed dominant ethnicity ... [nevertheless, his] work contains [“invisible”, “submerged”] signs of Italianità...” (“Italian Signs American Streets”, p 154; 174)
The Aaron, Lentricchia and Gardaphe commentaries were published before “Underworld.” This is significant because “Underworld” negates all three of their respective generalizations. In “Underworld”, DeLillo “visibly” manifest “ethnic consciousness” and returns to: “what he knows”: “home”, “region”, “ethnicity” and “idiom he grew up with”. Indeed, one section of “Underworld” is arguably the best ever written literary representation of “Little Italy” Italianità. Presumably, this is why Bill Tonelli selected a segment of DeLillo’s Little Italy portrait for the first reading of the lead section “Home”, in his anthology, “The Italian American Reader.”
However, DeLillo’s 1997 ethnic reemergence in “Underworld” was not a sudden, without precedent, “leap from the head of Zeus” type of thing. Rather, there was an intermediate transition from submerged ethnic works to full blown, ‘in-your-face’, Italianità. To fully appreciate his ‘home coming’, as it were; consideration should be given to his circa 1990 screenplay “Game 6”.
About 1989-90, DeLillo sent a screenplay “Game 6” to Amy Robinson Productions, where it lay dormant for almost 15 years before being made into the movie “Game 6”. Although, the movie is very close to the script, movies are inherently collaborative group productions involving interpretative decisions about the script by producers, directors, actors, technicians, etc. Accordingly, this note, discussing DeLillo’s work per se and “Game 6” as a precursor to his novel “Underworld”, will be based on the script.
“Game 6” has a number of characteristics similar to “Underworld” suggesting that it is a precursor to “Underworld”:
Protagonist: name (Nicky in “Game 6” - Nick in “Underworld”); ethnicity (Nicky Irish - Nick half Irish); ethnic Urban Villagers (Nicky Irish “Hells Kitchen” - Nick Italian Bronx/Fordham).
World Series historic event parallel plot thread (“Game 6” the 6th game of 1986 Series; “Underworld” the Thompson home run in the 1951 series)
UrbanVillage decay and nostalgia
Art and artist issues
However, the most significant characteristics of “Game 6”, suggesting its anticipation of “Underworld”, are the essence of Nicky Rogan’s opening night play and his dialogue with his father.
“Game 6” is a screenplay about a day in the life of playwright Nicky Rogan. A very special day - October 25, 1986. On that day he had to confront two nemeses: his life long love of the jinxed Boston Red Sox, who are scheduled to play Game 6 of the World Series that night, and “Steven Schwimmer, the most powerful critic in America”, who is going to review the opening performance of Nicky’s play that night.
Nicky’s producer Joanna tells him: “Steven Schwimmer is ready to strike. The exterminating angel. It’s your best play, Nicky. He will absolutely hate it.” Also, his friend and follow playwright Elliot, who was psychologically destroyed by a Schwimmer review, tells Nicky: “Tonight you find out what it means to suffer… You will suffer because he is in the theater. And you will suffer a thousand fold when his review appears.”
Up to now, Nicky’s plays have been very successful supporting a very affluent life style including an apartment in “United Nations Plaza Apartments” and a home in Connecticut. Accordingly, he ‘fronts’ a facade of indifference about Schwimmer, saying that he is more concerned about his beloved team the Red Sox losing Game 6. But, he is in fact worried. The play is important to him because it is a nostalgic work. Visiting with his father who still lives in an apartment in the old neighborhood (“47th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenue”); “Nicky stands by the boxlike refrigerator, drinking a beer. This is the kitchen that is the centerpiece of the theatre set. The new play is Nicky’s young life.”
Reminiscing, Nicky says: “It’s a constant shock to me, how small this place is. How did we do it? Five people in these little rooms… We must have been heroic.” To which his father responds: “Five’s not so many. There were families with seven kids. A grandmother. A dimwit uncle.”
Responding to his father comments about how Nicky couldn’t wait to leave the old neighborhood, Nicky, agreeing with his father but indicating a change in attitude, says: “[Now] I’m trying to see these things clearly and honestly. That’s the play they’re going to kill starting tonight. There’s a guy out there getting ready to rip it apart. And that’s us. Who we were and where we come from.”
Nicky of Game 6 may be construed as a description of Don DeLillo’s mind set when writing “Underworld.” He too left his urban village and its culture behind. And, like Nicky, a very successful writer whose works do not reflect the culture of his youth. And, also like Nicky, late in his career he returns to his urban village in fiction; writing about who we (Italian Americans) were and where we come from.
As noted above, Danile Aaron posited: “… hardly a vibration betrays an ethnic consciousness. His name could just as well be Don Smith or Don Brown.” This may be true for pre-Underworld novels; but with Underworld, “ethnic consciousness vibrates” violently. The author’s name could not possible be “Smith” or “Brown.” Indeed, if the book had been published anonymously there would be no doubt that it was written by an Italian American urban villager.
DeLillo’s depiction of an urban Italian American neighborhood has details that only one who lived there could possible know. Even the two great masterful sociological studies of Italian urban villages (Gans’ “Urban Villagers” and Whyte’s “Street Corner Society”) fail to capture the nuances of urban Italianita (bella figura, idiom, omerta) that DeLillo captures in the novel. Nuances that could only be grasped by a writer, and appreciated by a reader, who had experienced them on a daily basis over an extended period of time.
We see much of the street scenes through the eyes of his character Bronzini described in the first line of the village section as one who “thought that walking was an art…out nearly everyday…letting the route produce a medley of sounds and forms and movements, letting the voices fall and the aromas deploy in ways that varied, but not too much, from day to day.” For the next 120 pages DeLillo, in brilliant narrative, brings back to life those bygone “sounds”, “forms”, “movements”, “voices” and “aromas”.
Underworld is a great read for all literary aficionados. But, it is an especially important read for students of the Italian American ‘state of mind’, culture and generally Italianità. Further, while the urban village section is an important contribution to understanding the American origins of today’s Italian American culture; there is much more to the novel. Clearly, Italian Americans no longer live in urban villages. They have become part of the suburban sprawl. DeLillo, recognizing this fact, follows his protagonist and other characters “out west” and into the suburbs. He has produced in literature what still awaits a major sociological study; the post-urban village Italian American ‘state of mind’.
Finally, I assume that Messrs. Aaron, Lentricchia and Gardaphe have reconsidered their characterizations of DeLillo and the Italian foundations of his work.