Underworld is a non-linear narrative that has many intertwined themes. A central character is Nick Shay, a waste management executive, who leads an undirected existence in late 20th-century America. His wife, Marian, is having an affair with one of h...

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Underworld is a non-linear narrative that has many intertwined themes. A central character is Nick Shay, a waste management executive, who leads an undirected existence in late 20th-century America. His wife, Marian, is having an affair with one of his friends.

Underworld is a novel published in 1997 by Don DeLillo. A best-seller that was nominated for the National Book Award and shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, it is often regarded as DeLillo's supreme achievement. In 2006, a survey of eminent authors and critics conducted by The New York Times found Underworld the runner-up for the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years; the novel finished behind only Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Donald Richard DeLillo (born November 20, 1936) is an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter and essayist. His works have covered subjects as diverse as television, nuclear war, sports, the complexities of language, performance art, the Cold War, mathematics, the advent of the digital age, politics, economics, and global terrorism.


Initially he was a well-regarded cult writer; however, the publication in 1985 of White Noise brought him widespread recognition, and won him the National Book Award for fiction. It was followed in1988 by Libra, a bestseller. DeLillo has twice been a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist (for Mao II in1992 and for Underworld in 1998),won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II in 1992 (receiving a further PEN/Faulkner Award nomination for The Angel Esmeralda in 2012), was granted the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction in 2010, and won the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction in 2013.


DeLillo has described his fiction as being concerned with "living in dangerous times", and in a 2005 interview declared, "Writers must oppose systems. It's important to write against power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments [...] I think writers, by nature, must oppose things, oppose whatever power tries to impose on us."

Awards and award nominations


    1979 – Guggenheim Fellowship

    1984 – Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters

    1985 – National Book Award (Fiction) for White Noise

    1985 – National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (Fiction, 1985) for White Noise

    1988 – National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (Fiction, 1988) for Libra

    1988 – The New York Times Best Books of the Year (1988) for Libra

    1988 – National Book Award finalist (Fiction) for Libra

    1989 – Irish Times, Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize for Libra

    1992 – PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II

    1992 – Pulitzer Prize for Fiction nomination for Mao II

    1995 – Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award

    1997 – National Book Award finalist (Fiction) for Underworld

    1997 – National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (Fiction, 1997) for Underworld

    1997 – New York Times Best Books of the Year nominee for Underworld

    1998 – Pulitzer Prize for Fiction nomination for Underworld

    1998 – American Book Award for Underworld

    1999 – Jerusalem Prize

    1999 – International Dublin Literary Award shortlist for Underworld

    2000 – William Dean Howells Medal awarded for Underworld

    2000 – "Riccardo Bacchelli" International Award for Underworld

    2001 – James Tait Black Memorial Prize shortlist (Fiction, 2001) for The Body Artist

    2003 – International Dublin Literary Award longlist for The Body Artist

    2006 – New York Times: Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years (Runner-Up) for Underworld

    2007 – The New York Times Notable Book of the Year (Fiction and Poetry) for Falling Man

    2007 – Booklist Top of the List: A Best of Editors Choice for Falling Man

    2007 – Nominee for Man Booker International Prize

    2009 – Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service for achievements in literature

    2009 – International Dublin Literary Award longlist for Falling Man

    2010 – St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates

    2010 – PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction

    2011 – The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2011 list for The Angel Esmeralda

    2012 – The Story Prize finalist for The Angel Esmeralda

    2012 – PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction finalist for The Angel Esmeralda

    2012 – Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award longlist for The Angel Esmeralda

    2012 – Carl Sandburg Literary Award

    2012 – International Dublin Literary Award longlist for Point Omega

    2013 – Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction

    2014 - Norman Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement

    2015 - National Book Awards Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.




Plot introduction


Underworld is a non-linear narrative that has many intertwined themes. A central character is Nick Shay, a waste management executive, who leads an undirected existence in late 20th-century America. His wife, Marian, is having an affair with one of his friends.


The events of the novel span from the 1950s through the 1990s. The characters in the book respond to several historical events, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear proliferation.


The novel is divided into eight sections:


    Prologue – The Triumph of Death (3 October 1951; this section has been published separately, as a novella, under the title Pafko at the Wall)

    Part 1 – Long Tall Sally (Spring-Summer 1992)

    Part 2 – Elegy for Left Hand Alone (Mid-1980s – Early 1990s)

    Part 3 – The Cloud of Unknowing (Spring 1978)

    Part 4 – Cocksucker Blues (Summer 1974)

    Part 5 – Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry (Selected Fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s)

    Part 6 – Arrangement in Gray and Black (Fall 1951 – Summer 1952)

    Epilogue – Das Kapital


DeLillo said that the novel's title came to him as he thought about radioactive waste buried deep underground and about Pluto, god of death. The waste and byproducts of history, dissected and discussed throughout the novel, constantly resurface from the underworld (or, subconscious) of the American population despite their best attempts to repress and bury things they would rather forget. Further connections and connotations about the title can be made between part of the novel's subject matter (mafia criminals in New York who Nick Shay fantasizes may have had his father killed), and the 1927 gangster film of the same name.


Awards and nominations


In 1997, Underworld was a finalist for the National Book Award.


Underworld was a nominated finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize.


Underworld was the winner of the 2000 William Dean Howells Medal.

Film / TV adaptation

The novel was at one point optioned by producer Scott Rudin for a film adaptation before it lapsed. In 2002 Robert Greenwald held the rights and was in discussions for turning it into a television miniseries.




Robert McCrum

As this series approaches the present, the process of making a final selection from great contemporary fiction becomes progressively more contentious. In the impossible choice between Thomas Pynchon, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Joan Didion, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje, Robert Stone and Paul Auster, I have opted for DeLillo’s 11th novel.


Underworld is the work of a writer wired into contemporary America from the ground up, spookily attuned to the weird vibrations of popular culture and the buzz of everyday, ordinary conversations on bus and subway. According to Joyce Carol Oates, he is “a man of frightening perception”, an all-American writer who sees and hears his country like no other. This ambitious, massive (832pp) and visionary edifice certainly looks like a masterpiece; widely acclaimed by critics on first appearance, it is often chosen by lists like this.


From its first appearance in October 1997, a moment I remember well as the Observer’s literary editor, Underworld was spoken of as a towering performance and hailed as that elusive literary hippogriff, the great American novel. In his review, the novelist William Boyd wrote, “In Underworld, we have a mature and hugely accomplished novelist firing on all cylinders… reading the book is a charged and thrilling aesthetic experience and one remembers gratefully that this is what the novel can do.” The Observer also described it as “an epic to set alongside Moby-Dick and Augie March” (Nos 17 and 73 in this series). Such ideas were possibly reinforced by DeLillo’s quotable opening line: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”


Underworld opens on 3 October 1951 with one of the most famous baseball games ever played, the Brooklyn Dodgers versus the New York Giants, in which Bobby Thomson made the Shot Heard Round the World, hitting the ball deep into the crowd. This brilliant opening, juxtaposed with the first atomic detonation made by the Soviet Union on the far side of the world, launches a cold war narrative with the sub-theme of late-20th century American subconscious, a longstanding DeLillo preoccupation.


From this numinous date in US popular culture, DeLillo marches with growing confidence through the second half of the 20th century, loosely following the fate of the missing baseball. Underworld’s narrative is not sequential and, after the 1951 prologue, tracks through some key moments of recent American history, notably Vietnam and the Cuban missile crisis, and also through the life of DeLillo’s protagonist, Nick Shay, a waste-management officer, and his faithless wife Marian. Historical figures such as Lenny Bruce, J Edgar Hoover and Frank Sinatra make cameo appearances. As well as the elusive baseball, Underworld’s recurrent theme, and narrative hook, is Nick’s struggle with memories of a juvenile crime whose full story, with Oedipal overtones, is revealed towards the end of an epic journey through the American hinterland.


DeLillo has devoted a life of writing to the shadow side of American life, painting a dysfunctional freaks’ gallery of the wrecked (David Bell in Americana), the sick (Bill Gray in Mao II), the mad (Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra) and the suicidal (Eric Packer in Cosmopolis). In White Noise, the protagonist, Jack, who teaches Hitler studies, riffs hilariously on death and mass murder. It is said that DeLillo used to keep two files on his writing table, labelled “Art” and “Terror”. Through his lifelong explorations of the American psyche, DeLillo has become credited with extraordinary powers of literary clairvoyance. The war on terror is said to be foreshadowed in Mao II. The planes that flew into the twin towers are possibly alluded to on the cover of Underworld. Parts of White Noise are echoed in the anthrax scare of 2001, and so on.


In his Paris Review interview with DeLillo, Adam Begley prefaces the conversation with a vivid note that conjures the experience of meeting DeLillo. Begley writes: “A man who’s been called ‘the chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction’ can be expected to act a little nervous. I met Don DeLillo for the first time in an Irish restaurant in Manhattan, for a conversation he said would be ‘deeply preliminary’. He is a slender man, grey-haired, with boxy brown glasses. His eyes, magnified by thick lenses, are restless without being shifty. He looks to the right, to the left; he turns his head to see what’s behind him.”


DeLillo says that Underworld was inspired by the front page of the New York Times, 4 October 1951. He also told the Paris Review: “Sometime in late 1991, I started writing something new and didn’t know what it would be – a novel, a short story, a long story. It was simply a piece of writing, and it gave me more pleasure than any other writing I’ve done. It turned into a novella, Pafko at the Wall, and it appeared in Harper’s about a year after I started it. At some point I decided I wasn’t finished with the piece. I was sending signals into space and getting echoes back, like a dolphin or a bat. So the piece, slightly altered, is now the prologue to a novel-in-progress, which will have a different title. [This became the opening chapter of Underworld.] And the pleasure has long since faded into the slogging reality of the no man’s land of the long novel. But I’m still hearing the echoes.”


Elsewhere, he has spoken of the suggestive connections between Pluto, the god of the classical underworld, and the popular American unconscious. When I interviewed him for the Observer in2010 about his novella Point Omega, he described his creative methods: “I’m always keeping random notes on scraps of paper. I always carry a pencil and a notebook. Coming on the train today I had an idea for a story I’m writing and jotted it down – on just a little scrap of paper. Then I clip these together. I’ll look at them in, say, three weeks’ time, and see what I’ve got. You know, I’ve never made an outline for any novel that I’ve written. Never.”


This is an approach that possibly sponsors the teeming structure of a novel like Underworld, but the upshot can be stunning. From a variety of reviews, Martin Amis (in Esquire) hailed “the ascension of a great writer”; Malcolm Bradbury (in the Times) spoke of “something to take home for the millennium”; Blake Morrison (in the Independent) declared that “DeLillo ranks with the best of contemporary American novelists”; and Fintan O’Toole (in the Irish Times) acclaimed “one of the defining novels of the postwar period”. Finally, that fearsome American critic, Harold Bloom, identified Underworld as “the culmination of what DeLillo can do”, a novel that “touched what I would call the sublime”.

Book Awards

William Saroyan International Prize for Writing

Book Publishers

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