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2011 MLB Playoffs

Director’s Cut: Q&A With Don DeLillo

An e-mail exchange about Underworld, baseball, and the 60th anniversary of Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World

In honor of the 60th anniversary of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” National Book Award-winning author Don DeLillo answered some of Grantland’s questions about writing, baseball, and the historic 1951 New York Giants-Brooklyn Dodgers Game 3 that ended with Thomson’s home run. The prologue to DeLillo’s novel Underworld is set at Game 3, and an excerpt of that prologue is available here.

Can you explain how Underworld came together? The prologue was first published as a novella, “Pafko at the Wall,” in Harper’s Magazine in 1992, but Underworld wasn’t released until 1997. When you wrote Pafko were you already planning to use that scene as the beginning of a long novel?

One day in October 1991, I learned from a newspaper story that this day marked the fortieth anniversary of a famous baseball game played in New York, in the old Polo Grounds, Giants vs. Dodgers. The event was located somewhere at the far reaches of memory, mine and many other people’s. But some lingering aura persisted and finally sent me to the library, where I discovered news that startled me: on that same October day, the U.S. government announced that the Soviet Union had recently exploded an atomic bomb. The two events seemed oddly matched, at least to me, two kinds of conflict, local and global rivalries. In time I went to work on what I believed would be a long story and at some point well into the enterprise I began to suspect that the narrative of the ballgame and the atomic test wanted to be extended — well into the last decades of the Twentieth Century. I was eager to make the leap.

When I was working on the novel, I decided that each part’s title would derive from an already existing cultural artifact — painting, book, film, musical composition, etc. So I exchanged “Pafko at the Wall”, now the novel’s prologue, for the title of a Bruegel painting referred to in the text — “The Triumph of Death.”

Do you remember where you were on October 3, 1951, during Game 3? Were you a Dodgers or Giants fan (or Yankees, since you’re from the Bronx)? What do you recall about the pennant race, that game, Bobby Thomson’s home run, and the feeling in New York that day?

I was at the dentist’s office. Dr. Fish. Crotona Avenue in the Bronx. I was a Yankees fan and since they had already won the American league race, the game at the Polo Grounds was simply, from my viewpoint, a method of determining the Yankees’ opponent in the World Series. The radio was on in the dentist’s office and when Bobby Thomson hit his historic home run — “the shot heard ’round the world” — there was cheering in the office and the waiting room. I sat in the dentist’s chair trying to smile, my mouth tight with clamping devices.

What made you choose that game as a moment to portray America on the cusp of the Cold War and the nuclear age?

That playoff game occurred only six years after the end of World War II and at the beginning of the era to be known as the Cold War. In retrospect, it seemed to me wedged between significant world events as one of the last times in which people’s enormous joy brought them out into the streets to run and shout and climb lampposts (but not to set fire to automobiles or ransack appliance stores). The game, for Dodgers fans, constituted a wound so deep that it lingered through their lifetimes. Brooklyn’s collective memory still bears the image of [Ralph] Branca’s pitch to Thomson. The significance of baseball, more than other sports, lies in the very nature of the game — slow and spread out and rambling. It’s a game of history and memory, a kind of living archive.

If you were going to write a novel of similar scope about post-Cold War America and begin it with a scene at a sporting event, what do you think it might be?

To portray America over the past twenty years or so, I would think immediately of football, probably the Super Bowl in its sumptuous suggestion of a national death wish.

The prologue to Underworld contains some memorable appearances from historical figures such as Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, Jackie Gleason, and Toots Shor. Which of these characters did you most enjoy writing about? How is it different to construct a character whose life is already partly defined by history as opposed to one who is completely fictional? Do you prefer one over the other?

Gleason, Hoover, Shor and Sinatra were vivid figures to set into the larger landscape of the ballgame and the nuclear test. But in the novel itself, it was Lenny Bruce who posed the serious challenge. His appearances of course are pure fiction and in the novel they served to trace the deep apprehensions of the Cuban Missile Crisis as experienced by one of society’s more notorious individuals. The test for me, of course, was to be funny in the way he might have been funny, with the danger of missiles flying into range at any hour or minute. I enjoyed the challenge and felt that Lenny’s voice was the urban and ethnic counterpart of the culture of the 1960s that was on the verge of being born.

In your 1993 interview for The Paris Review, you described language this way: “… the sheer pleasure of making it and bending it and seeing it form on the page and hearing it whistle in my head.” This reminds me of sports, the feeling we get when we’re absorbed in the game and really playing well. Do you think sports and writing have some common, creative core?

When the work is going well, it can reach a level of spontaneity and unpredictability that is exhilarating — but it doesn’t make the writer (not this writer anyway) pound the tabletop. It’s an interior sense of satisfaction that’s often so fleeting it can’t be relived (or even remembered) when the writer revisits the page in a more critical mood the next day or six months later.

In the same interview, you say that writing “Pafko at the Wall” gave you more pleasure than any of your other writing until then. Was the process of writing the rest of Underworld as pleasurable? What made writing the prologue so enjoyable?

Much of the pleasure derived from the fact that I’d grown up playing ball in the street and then in the playground and then on a field in the East Bronx that represented a plea for urban renewal. Of course I’d also followed the game on a major league level. The language and customs were deeply ingrained — a language, baseball’s, that is unique and detailed and native-born. This represents an interesting challenge for a fiction writer adapting the language to his particular contexts. When I spoke to a group of foreign translators about Underworld, I spent nearly a full day (of three days) exclusively on the idiom and syntax and rules of the game of baseball. They were interested but I think the language remained essentially Greek to them, except for the Greek translator; she didn’t know what it was.

Fourteen years after Underworld was published and roughly 19 years after Harper’s first ran “Pafko at the Wall,” how has the way you look at both pieces of writing changed?

Every so often I am asked to answer questions from translators and these glimpses of the novel tell me that my feelings about the book have deepened through the years. It seems more ambitious to me now than it did when I was working day to day: five years that now seem compressed into the folds and bends of daily routine. It seems new to me, filled with passages that I’d forgotten. I guess it’s the response of a man to the culture and literature of a country that never fails to be astonishing.


Previously from Rafe Bartholomew:
Spoelstra in the Philippines
Kobe Takes Manila; NBA Not Invited
The YouTube Highlights NBA Draft
A review of Classic Cavs: The Fifty Greatest Wins in Cleveland Cavaliers History

Filed Under: Q&A, Art, General topics, Interviews, People, Rafe Bartholomew, Director's Cut, Grantland Q&A