A critic of consumerism gets the hard sell

One morning last month, Don DeLillo emerged from the shadows of a well-protected life in an undisclosed suburb, arrived at his publicist's office at Scribner and did something truly remarkable: he allowed himself to be interviewed and photographed. The author of 11 novels depicting the power of corporate America and the dark and insidious logic of consumer society, DeLillo is himself a most reluctant commodity. He avoids the limelight, grants few interviews, never reviews books or teaches writing seminars and rarely speaks to the media. His wariness at the invasive prospect of a magazine profile is not altogether unexpected.

With publication of his new novel, Underworld (Forecasts, July 14), looming on October 3, the novelist finds himself at a peculiar turn. Underworld is a major work of American fiction. An epic history of the atomic age, it covers more ground than anything DeLillo has attempted to date, from a legendary baseball game in 1950s New York to the atomic testing grounds of contemporary Kazakhstan. Writing with incandescent heat, DeLillo depicts a family marked by the forces shaping the American millennium -- rising tides of weaponry and waste that transformed the landscapes of New York City and the American Southwest. Gordon Lish, a close friend of DeLillo, tells PW the novel's subject is not simply baseball or the bomb, but "America itself as an unstoppable mechanism, one whose glory is its onrush, its power to assimilate everything in it."

The novel itself has been quickly assimilated by the publishing industry. In an auction that began on October 29 last year and closed, aptly enough, on Halloween, hardcover and paperback world English-language rights were purchased by Scribner editor-in-chief Nan Graham for what is rumored to be $1.3 million, a deal that made headlines in half a dozen magazines. It was optioned two weeks later by Scott Rudin at Paramount, reportedly for another $1 million. Audio rights also went to Simon &Schuster, making Underworld a vertically integrated property of Viacom -- a feat of corporate packaging that conspiratorial-minded readers might say bears the ominous echo of DeLillo's own novels.

In person, the writer, too, appears to have stepped out of the pages of his fiction. A slim, unprepossessing man with owlish features, large boxy glasses and an unruly forelock of silvery hair, he speaks in long, analytical sentences sharply inflected by the accent of his working-class childhood in the Bronx. It is easy to imagine him as the protagonist of Mao II (Viking, 1993), the reclusive author Bill Gray whose distance from the publishing industry leads him to say: "The more books they publish, the weaker we become. The secret force that drives the industry is the compulsion to make writers harmless."It is a sentiment that DeLillo d s not disavow: "I don't think there's anything in the industry particularly, but there may be a mechanism in the culture that tries to reduce any threat to consumer consciousness. I don't think writers are exempt from this. On the other hand, it's not easy to think of a case where a novelist poses a significant threat.

"Let me elaborate just a little if I can. There are writers who refuse to make public appearances. Writers who say 'no.' Writers in opposition, not necessarily in a specific way. But there are those of us who write books that are not easily absorbed by the culture, who refuse to have their photographs taken, who refuse to give interviews. And at some level, this may be largely a matter of personal disinclination. But there may also be an element in which such writers are refusing to become part of the all-incorporating treadmill of consumption and disposal."

The Crying of Oct. 29
"Corporations are great and appalling things" observes Nick Shay, the hero of Underworld. "They take you and shape you in nearly nothing flat." But in real life these things take time. After almost a year, the corporate shaping of Underworld has only just begun.
First the novel became a pricetag, when Scribner refused to squelch rumors that it paid a news-making but thrifty $800,000 for the manuscript. The amount was in fact $1.3 million for English-language rights, according to a highly placed source privy to the auction's final stages.
Scribner wasn't the only bidder interested in soft-pedaling the auction's dramatic, two-day crescendo, according to PW's source, who claims that this offer beat out $1.5 million offers from Knopf and Holt for world rights. Holt publisher Michael Naumann has dismissed the claim. "Wh ver says that is lying," he says. "There was never any talk of world rights." (Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta was unavailable for comment. Scribner editor Nan Graham refuses to discuss the auction.)
Then the book became an option.
Two weeks after the Scribner acquisition, Gersh's Ron Bernstein sold screen rights for close to $1 million to Scott Rudin (of Scribner's sibling company, Paramount), producer of Ransom and The First Wives Club. "I thought Scott was the only person in the business who would read a manuscript of that length," says Bernstein. "He is the only person at Paramount who would have the clout and ear of that company to get it through."
Mel Gibson as Shay? Bette Midler as the heroine, Klara Sax? Don't wait for the action figures. Even Bernstein admits it may take a while to squeeze the pagemonster into celluloid. "In a lazy industry that is only interested in doing the movie version of a TV show, this kind of very intelligent original work takes a while to find the proper translator. This is not Grisham. This is not movie-in-a-box."
-- Lorin Stein

The Marketing of a Great American Novel

The fact that a prestigious novel such as Underworld is subject to the same realities of the marketplace, the same P&L, the same lateral marketing plans that govern the rest of the trade, is a matter the writer, quite understandably, prefers not to discuss. "It d sn't impinge on me except to the extent I want it to, and as an element that feeds my work," he says. "I keep the greatest psychological distance I can maintain from all of this. I'm not part of it except in the sense that you and I are having this conversation. It's there. Writers write, publishers sell. That's probably a very old-fashioned conviction but I do maintain it."

In keeping with the principle that Underworld will market itself, Scribner will promote the novel in the most traditional and non-sensational fashion: 350 bound galleys have been sent to reviewers. A seven-city reading tour at libraries and literary centers is planned. There will be a Vanity Fair photograph, a New Yorker profile by David Remnick, perhaps an NPR booking, but the author won't do TV.

Two decades ago, DeLillo was a critic's writer, his readership small and steadfast. In his first novel, Americana (Houghton Mifflin, 1971), a disaffected TV executive traverses the country in search of a national identity; his subsequent books also took the American character as their subject, each as a kind of postmodern, comic nightmare involving a separate arena of American life. There is college football and nuclear weaponry in End Zone (Houghton Mifflin, 1972), rock 'n' roll and the drug culture in Great Jones Street (Houghton Mifflin, 1973), science and mathematics in Ratner's Star (Knopf, 1976).

Beginning with 1985's American Book Award recipient, White Noise (Viking), a novel about academic life and industrial disaster, the author finally began his halting migration from the cultural fringe to the mainstream. More than 300,000 copies of White Noise have sold in paperback and hardcover (roughly the same number of copies of Underworld will have to sell for the book to break even). With backlist longevity has come an enduring reputation. He is now widely hailed as one of the stars of our literary pantheon. His personal tendency to eschew book publicity has proven to be the best kind of publicity, deepening the aura of intrigue surrounding his books.

DeLillo professes not to take much of an interest in reviews and scholarly critiques of his work. "Normally I look at the first wave of reviews. After that it's not what reviewers say that become a problem, it's just reading about myself and reading yet another summary of the book that becomes a bit difficult. There's a certain kind of soul-weariness that sets in."

In 1988, critics on the right condemned Libra, his novel depicting the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, for questioning the lone gunman theory of the Kennedy assassination -- in the Washington Post George Will lambasted the book as "an act of literary vandalism and bad citizenship." Underworld's freewheeling cast of real and fictional characters may prompt other readers to question the novelist's fidelity to the record. "History is essentially the record of events," DeLillo explains. "Fiction comes out of another level of experience. It comes out of dreams, daydreams, fantasies, delirium. It comes out of hours of wasted time; it comes out of nightmares. It's everything in a writer's life that finally determines how and what he writes. And all of these things declare a kind of opposition to history. And there's a sense in which a novel may, as in the case of Libra, fill in gaps in history, in the sense that Libra proposes a specific conspiracy to fill the blank spaces of that particular afternoon in Dallas in 1963. There's a sense that fiction can rescue history from its confusion."

The novel as an art form, DeLillo says, "has moved to the margins and we cannot expect it to be anywhere else. From this sideline vantage, the novelist can assert an influence in a context that may be relatively narrow, but may be all the more forceful and incisive for this very reason. Maybe marginality sharpens the writer's responses and makes him more trenchant, more observant and more dynamic."

To an industry that often asks itself, who are the rightful heirs of Faulkner, Joyce and Nabokov, DeLillo is anything but marginal. He has become an emblem of literary greatness: a novelist whose books are so dense and rewarding that critics spend years unraveling their secrets. A symbol of integrity in a culture of publicity, he has broken his public silences to speak out in reaction to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and other concerns. In an age of million-dollar publicity campaigns, DeLillo's popularity has spread at the grass roots level: through independent bookstores, in classrooms and across the Internet.

As Nan Graham puts it, with DeLillo "you really do have the writer alone in the room writing for the reader alone in the room reading. More than with most authors by far, those two individual acts are united by the publishing industry with as little Sturm und Drang and politicking as possible."

DeLillo would rather not contemplate the perception that this novel represents, in the publishing argot, a "breakout book" (it must be said, this is not a term his publicist has used). "I've never thought about myself in terms of a career. When people ask me a question about my career, I answer, perhaps a bit facetiously, I don't have a career, I have a typewriter. I've never planned anything."

Even DeLillo's stripped-down working methods suggest a deliberate effort to hold the web of instantaneous marketing and news at arm's length. The novelist whom James Walcott has called "America's leading literary diagnostician" d sn't surf the Net or even use a word processor. DeLillo explains: "The physical sensation of hitting keys and watching hammers strike the page is such an integral part of the way I think and even the way I see words on the page that I'd be most reluctant to give it up. That is, there's a sculptural quality, to me, of letter-by-letter, word-by-word, linear progress across a piece of paper as I type and as the hammers hit the page. It's more immediate. It's more physical. It's actually sensuous."

Ground Zero, the Bronx

DeLillo's life is, in a sense, a great American story, but one he is not eager to discuss at any length. The son of Italian immigrants, he grew up in a two-family house in the Bronx with a sister, grandparents and cousins, a few blocks away from where Lee Harvey Oswald, who was three years younger, lived with his mother in the mid-1950s. (The two never met.)

It wasn't an environment that encouraged writerly introspection, nor was DeLillo captivated by literature and language. "I did not start reading regularly until I was in college," he says. "My memories of high school are of getting home as fast as I could so that I could go play basketball in the schoolyard."

Underworld revisits DeLillo's own knockabout years in the Bronx in chapters depicting his protagonist, the waste management executive Nick Shay, as a fatherless street punk who kills a man in a pool hall basement. "I know the streets that he came from, and that entire environment and that language is just second nature to me," he says. "And it was an enormous pleasure to return to this material after all these years. The first things I wrote were short stories about the Italian Bronx. I didn't write very many of them at all. But it's been a long time between those stories and this novel. And I needed a certain number of years in order to see it clearly and understand how to write about it, which I did not understand when I was 21 years old."

DeLillo went to Fordham in 1954, then joined the advertising firm of Ogilvy and Mather, writing spots for accounts like Sears R buck and Zippo lighters. Throughout the 1960s, he placed short stories in literary journals like Epoch and the Kenyon Review. He'll say little about this transitional period of his life and the slow gravitational pull of writing. "It was very, very gradual," he says. "I didn't realize until I was two years into my first novel that I could be a writer. Suddenly I just had a feeling. Call it an experience. And it was the first indication that I ever had that I was possibly good enough to do this on a regular basis or for an extended amount of time."

DeLillo attributes his fascination with the deep, apocalyptic undercurrents of rituals like sports and shopping not to personal circumstance, but to the historical context of his fiction: "For the last 35 years or so, there have been two levels of violence -- the clear, vivid overarching threat we've faced until recently of a nuclear exchange. And the other is something which I think began to flow from the Kennedy assassination and the social disruptions of the 1960s -- a sense of randomness, uncertainty, ambiguity that includes violence, among other things. This is part of our psychic weather."

DeLillo adds: "I became a writer by living in New York and seeing and hearing and feeling all the great, amazing and dangerous things the city endlessly assembles. And I also became a writer by avoiding serious commitment to anything else."

Since his second novel, DeLillo has been agented by Lois Wallace, who d s not sign the author to one house for more than one novel at a time. But his resume of editors reads like a Who's Who of the publishing world: Philip Rich edited his first three novels at Houghton Mifflin. Knopf's Robert Gottlieb -- "with the substantial assistance of Lee G rner" -- edited Ratner's Star, The Players (1977), Running Dog (1978) and The Names (1982).

His next three novels were published by Viking. "In each case at Viking, after I published a novel, the editor left. I got along very well with all of them and I'm still friendly with all of them. But this is something that happens in the business. I didn't consider it an enormous problem." Elizabeth Sifton was the editor of White Noise, Gerald Howard edited Libra and Nan Graham edited Mao II (1992).

Protected by a cadre of editors, agents and friends who reveal few details about the author's character and whereabouts, DeLillo continues to produce new books and projects: he has written an original screenplay called Game Six and is widely believed to be the author of Amazons, a novel about a woman hockey player, written under the name Cleo Birdwell and published by Holt in 1980. But one wonders if it will soon no longer be possible for DeLillo to maintain the distance he seeks from the publishing machine and the public eye. As the first books in years from Pynchon and possibly Salinger have inspired journalists to invade the private lives of these authors with ever increasing zeal, it has been suggested that a writer's ability to shield himself from the media is a dead art. DeLillo d sn't agree. "Surely the media has become stronger than ever, and surely there is this urge, as I say, almost an automatic mechanism that will try to absorb certain such reluctant entities into the weave. I don't think it's necessarily an artifact of the past. I hope that writers will still refuse to submit."

God of the Underworld

What is the Underworld? A zone where information, desire, crime and capital circulate beneath the manifest events of daily life, and where wealth and power stake a dangerous, hidden claim on the American mind? Asked why he found this title appropriate, DeLillo says: "While I worked on the book, I gradually compiled a number of titles. I first hit upon Underworld when I started thinking about plutonium waste buried deep in the earth. Then about Pluto, the god of the dead and ruler of the world. New connections and meanings began to suggest themselves, and I recall drawing a circle around the title Underworld on a page filled with prospective titles."

Can it have escaped the novelist that Pluto is also the god of money? As DeLillo emerges from the literary underground, he may find that his place in the big business of literature and celebrity isn't quite as marginal, or as oppositional, as he would like it to be. It is a predicament that may well provide the grist of his next sublime journey into the secret life of contemporary America.