Don DeLillo

, /10

Don DeLillo (USA, 1936)

"Running Dogs" (1978)

synopsis forthcoming

"Names" (1982)

synopsis forthcoming

"White Noise" (1985) + was published a month after a toxic leak at a chemical factory in Bhopal (India) killed thousands of people. It was a coincidence that the novel also dealt with the effects of a toxic leak, but it helped make it famous. First and foremost, it is a display of linguistic skills. DeLillo can mix and match lexicons that belong to different worlds, and create casual, anti-classical, sentences that are both profound and amusing. Secondly, DeLillo is funny: he indulges in a kind of clever wit that borders on black humor (making fun of a couple who is afraid of dying in a society that has become a death factory), although this also means that many scenes are detours more similar to the skits of the musichall than to philosophical meditations on death. The novel is also a hilarious satire of consumer tv-mediated society and of academic life (celebrated by Jack's philosophical friend Murray as a new religion, but he is also fascinated by death), and its plot seems derived from a television sitcom, or from a Mel Brooks-directed spoof of the Hollywood-ian sci-fi disaster movie. Thirdly, DeLillo is a reporter: he presents and dissects a family created by multiple divorces, a family that embodies failure, alienation and disorientation (not only for the protagonist but also for the children, none of which lives with a full sibling and with the two biological parents). Jack has four children: Mary Alice (age 19) and Steffie (9), from his first and second marriages to Dana; Heinrich (14), from his marriage to Janet; and Bee (12) from his marriage to Tweedy. Two of them, Heinrich and Steffie, live with Jack. His fourth and current wife Babette has three children: Denise (age 11), Eugene (8), and Wilder (about 2); and they all live with them. Then there is DeLillo's hyper-realism: the novel glorifies minute meaningless details of ordinary life, especially when they have to do with the national obsession with exercise and pills. Finally, there is DeLillo the philosopher. The addictive television news and the grotesque virtual reality of tabloids (two sides of the same passion for sensational events) are basically presented as antidotes to the fear of death. In this case the death of this specific protagonist also turns out to be worthy of the very television news and tabloid stories that his family consumes: he is dying of industrial-scale pollution. There are similarities in the way DeLillo describes unreal events with Jean Baudrillard's theory of simulacra and of the "hyperreal": reality and simulated reality blur, for example, when there are evacuations, some of which are mere simulations. Unfortunately, DeLillo doesn't know how to end the novel, how to close the circle of death that he has started. He simply gets bored of the novel, and leaves us frustrated, not enlightened.

Jack is a college professor who founded a course of Hitler studies, the only one in the country. He has divorced more than ones and is currently married to Babette, who has 3 children of her own: Wilder, Denise and Eugene, but the latter lives with his father in Australia. Jack has one, 14-years-old Heinrich, a smart kid who is into science. It is the beginning of the academic year and the students are just arriving, escorted by their parents. Jack befriends a newcomer, Murray, who has decided to start a course of Elvis Presley studies. Jack's other child, Bee, from another wife, has just returned to the USA after two years in South Korea. Heinrich's mother Janet lives in a commune that is involved in big business operations. There are rumors of sex slavery, drugs, and coercion. One day the children are sent home because a mysterious gas is causing illnesses. Heinrich plays chess remotely with a convict, Tommy Roy, who killed six people. Jack is about to turn 51. Jack's daughter Steffie inquires about her mother Dana, and we learn that Dana works for the CIA. Meanwhile, their friend Murray has become fascinated with television. Jack is taking German lessons from Howard. Jack is the only pupil. Howard also teaches Greek, Latin, ocean sailing and meteorology. Bob is the father of one of Babette's children, the 11-years-old Denise. Babette volunteers to read to the blind, in particular an elderly brother and sister who disappear and are found 4 days late, having spent 4 days lost in a shopping mall. To find them, the police asks help form a psychic, Adele. The sister dies a few days later of the stress. Denise is worried because her mother has memory lapses and finds out that Babette is secretely taking a medication called Dylar. Jack too is fascinated by television, but by a particular phenomenon of television: people want catastrophes, bigger and bigger ones. Murray needs approval for his Presley studies from the chair of the department, Alphonse, a mathematical genius who speaks multiple languages and has a photographic memory. Jack and Murray mix meditations on Hitler and Presley. Jack's 12-years-old daughter Bee and comes to visit him for a few days for the Christmas holidays. Bee lives with her father Malcolm somewhere in Indonesia where Malcolm is a diplomat involved in secret schemes to fight communism. Bee's mother Tweedy, Jack's third wife, who divorced him and took all his money, is depressed because she never gets to see her husband. When Bee leaves, Jack stops by a graveyard to meditate on death. Jack and Babette always discuss who will die first. Since the story is narrated by Jack, we hear is inner thoughts, that he doesn't want to die first. One evening the family sees Babette on television: a station decided to film Babette while she is teaching a class.

Suddenly a major chemical disaster releases a black cloud that is highly toxic. Heinrich is fascinated by what he can see from the roof of the house. The authorities soon order an evacuation of the town. Jack and Babette pack the four children in the car and drive towards the improvised refugee camp. The cloud causes the dejavu phenomenon: people think they have already lived what they are living. Jack gets our of the car to get gasoline at a deserted gas station and is infected by the toxic cloud. Steffie has dejavu. Heinrich becomes an attraction among the refugees because he knows a lot about the toxic chemicals. Babette has dejavu. Jack's data are entered into a computer so that the scientists will know how long he survives the incident. He feels that his life has been reduced to just a computer file. Babette reads in a tabloid that scientists have proven that life after death exists. The tabloid are full of ridiculous conspiracy theories that mix the Shroud of Turin, the Cold War, the Vatican, etc. What seems to be true is that the scientists have engineered microbes that can eat the toxic cloud. They are quarantined like the lepers of the Middle Ages. After nine days they are allowed to return to their home. Heinrich, however, warns his family that they are surrounded daily by radiations (radio, television, microwave ovens, power lines, radars, etc). There are still cases of dejavu in the town.

Jack finally discovers where Babette hides the Dylar and takes it to his doctor, who knows nothing about it, and then to a scientist, Winnie: Winnie has never seen anything like it, but shows amazement that, far from being just fools' gold, it is a very advanced pill that releases slowly into the body and then self-destroys. Eventually Jack confronts Babette. Babette confesses what happened to her. She has a condition that is fear of death. She researched in vain for a cure. Eventually she accidentally saw an ad in the newspaper that scientists were looking for volunteers to try a new pill for fear of death. She applied and, to make sure she would be accepted in the program, she started a relationship with the manager. She had sex with him twice a week. She refuses to tell Jack who this person is. This person is in charge of this top-secret research and has engineered a drug that should work on the chemical processes of the brain to annihilate the fear of death. It dawns on Jack that he is not just a computer file. He is just the chemical processes in his brain, something that Heinrich has been preaching for a while. Unfortunately, Dylar hasn't worked so Babette is more than happy to stop taking it. Denise has stolen the remaining pills and refuses to hand them over to Jack, who would like to keep them as evidence. The authorities are still staging disaster drills to rehearse what to do in case of another chemical disaster. His nine-years-old Steffie volunteers to be a victim, and Heinrich volunteers to be a captain. Heinrich introduces Jack to his friend Orest, who wants to set a new world record: spend 67 days in a cage with venomous snakes. Steffie is the daughter of Dana, whom Jack married twice: she was both his first and his forth wife. Dana worked part-time for the CIA and reviewed "coded novels". All three of his wives seemed to be involved with spying. Tweedy's husband was a spy. Janet used to work for a secretive think-tank.

Now Jack is afraid of dying, and starts thinking that he needs Dylar. He begs Babette to introduce him to the mysterious organization and promises that he will not take revenge for her adultery. The dejavu crisis has receded, but now other strange things are happening. A police officer swears that he saw a UFO dump a body, and many people start reporting sightings of UFOs. An insane asylum goes on fire and many patients die. Mary Alice is Jack's oldest daughter from his first marriage to Dana. She is 19 and lives in Hawaii. Jack's fear of death is getting worse. He is convinced that Denise has stolen the last remaining pills of Dylar and begs her to give them to him. Denise wants to know what Dylar is. Jack finally tells her the whole story, including Babette's adultery. But Denise has really thrown away the pills. Babette's father Vernon shows up unexpected. He gifts Jack of his old car and a gun. Vernon is not afraid of dying even though he has a chronic cough, suffers from insomnia, limps, is going blind, has bad teeth and no money. Jack becomes so paranoid that he even ransacks the compacted garbage in his basement to find the pills. His daughter Steffie flies to Mexico to visit her mother. The next day a noxious smell triggers another brief evacuation. Another ex wife calls, Janet, asking for her son Heinrich to visit her at the spiritual compound, but Jack is reluctant to agree, possibly afraid of brainwashing. Jack presides over the Hitler conference. Now he is also obsessed with the gun that his father-in-law left him. Jack drives to the clinic to get further tests. The results of the tests are numbers that only his doctor can decipher. The numbers shows that the deadly chemical is still in his bloodstream. This increases his fear of death. His philosophical walks with Murray don't help because they are now entirely focused on the meaning of death. Murray psychoanalyzes Jack's passion for Hitler studies: killing other people is a way to exorcise one's fear of dying. Jack doesn't even want to see his doctor: he hid the results of his tests in a drawer. Jack is saying good-bye to things by throwing away all his belongings in a sort of mad rage. At the same time, he begins to carry the gun with him. Orest's experiment fails miserably: only 3 snakes are placed in the glass cage, he is bitten right away, and the snakes turn out not to be poisonous. Winnie tells Jack that she accidentally found out about Dylar: it was the failed invention of a controversial inventor named Willie Mink who worked for a big corporation but was eventually fired. Winnie tells Jack that Willie still lives in the motel where he used to meet his volunteers, i.e. where he had sex with his wife. Jack steals his neighbors' car, drives to the motel like a madman and plans to kill Willie after stealing his Dylar. The murder is a grotesque action in which a terrified Willie tries to win his fear of death by ingurgitating his own Dylar and Jack fails to kill him. Jack takes him to a hospital run by German nuns after staging Willie's attempted suicide. Then he drives back home and returns the car to his neighbors' driveway.

Wilder gets on his toy tricycle and runs away, merging with car traffic and almost killing himself, but being saved by a driver. Jack is still avoiding the doctor. In the last scene Jack is in line at a register of a supermarket, carrying out the ritual of consumerism and glancing at the tabloids that announce all sorts of false but satisfying stories.

"Libra" (1988)

Sempre attentissimo alle cronache contemporanee (vedi la diagnosi della civilta' dei media condotta in "White noise", il romanzo super-premiato del 1985), DeLillo concentra il suo nono romanzo in sei secondi di un giorno del 1963, i sei secondi in cui si compie la tragedia di John Kennedy.
DeLillo immagina che l' attentato sia stato architettato dalla CIA, disillusa dalla politica estera del presidente e decisa a far ricadere la responsabilita' sul governo Cubano. L' intera vicenda viene rivissuta attraverso i piani di un sinistro agente in pensione e parallelamente attraverso la vita privata dell' attentatore. I personaggi minori giocano un ruolo cruciale nel rendere credibile la trama, tanto che alla fine si ha la sensazione di aver letto il primo rapporto attendibile su quel mistero rimasto insoluto. Al tempo stesso DeLillo ha rifondato il genere fantapolitico in termini di vita quotidiana: "Libra" e' innanzitutto la biografia dell' attentatore, uno sconfitto, un solitario, un fallito, alla ricerca del mito che lo rendera' qualcuno.

I capitoli del libro procedono lungo due binari paralleli, uno che segue la vita privata di Lee Oswald e l'altro che segue i preparativi per l'attentato. Nicholas Branch e` un ex agente della CIA in pensione che sta esaminando i documenti dell'attentato, e naturalmente e` quantomeno perplesso davanti al numero impressionante di testimoni deceduti. E` lui a mettere in moto il racconto su entrambi i binari, man mano che riesuma i documenti dell'epoca.

Oswald, benche' soldato, dimostro` presto le sue simpatie per il comunismo e per Castro in particolare. Finito il servizio militare, fuggi` anzi a Mosca, dove ottenne un lavoro e si trovo` una moglie, Marina. Insoddisfatto anche li`, rientro` negli USA con la moglie, ma naturalmente fini` subito nel mirino dei servizi segreti.

L'idea dell'attentato a Kennedy venne prima a Win Everett, un ex agente che era entrato a far parte di un gruppo semi-illegale impegnato a complottare per l'eliminazione di Castro. L'idea di Everett era di fingere un attentato contro Kennedy e far credere che si sia trattato di un complotto cubano, in maniera tale da giustificare un'invasione di Cuba. Un altro ex agente, Guy Banister, gestisce un'agenza investigativa a New Orleans che e` un veicolo per trasmettere fondi agli esuli Cubani che complottano contro Castro. Per lui lavora l'investigatore David Ferrie, altro convinto anti-Castrista, nonche' liaison con il mafioso Carmine Latta. Walker, un estremista di destra, e` appena sfuggito a un misterioso attentato e si cerca lo sparatore. Everett scopre che e` stato Oswald, simpatizzante comunista, e decide che Oswald e` l'uomo ideale per il finto attentato contro Kennedy. Per puro caso Everett scopre che Oswald lavora per Banister, estremista di destra, ma passa le giornate a stampare propaganda di sinistra. L'idea e` stata di David Ferrie. Anche Carmine Latta vuole la testa di Kennedy, perche' le autorita` lo perseguitano. Un altro losco figuro, Mackey, compie il passo successivo, quello di decidere che l'attentato non sara` soltanto una sceneggiata, ma un vero e proprio attentato, con l'obiettivo di uccidere Kennedy. Qui i racconti cominciano a riunirsi, perche' si capisce che Oswald, rientrato in patria, e alla ricerca di lavoro, e` stato alla fine adescato da Ferrie, il quale sta tentando di convincerlo a sparare a Kennedy. Oswald tenta di emigrare a Cuba, ma gli viene negato il visto. A quel punto si lascia convincere da Ferrie. Il complotto intanto e` cresciuto, e FBI, Mafia e questo gruppo di estremisti in pratica si aiutano l'un l'altro a seminare tracce di Oswald il filo-Cubano e a fare in modo che l'attentato riesca.

Oswald viene catturato dalla polizia e si autoconvince a non collaborare. La mafia, preoccupata che parli, decide pero` di sopprimerlo, e convince Jack Ruby, che ha ingenti debiti e ha bisogno del loro aiuto per rilanciare i suoi night club, a uccidere Oswald. Ruby morira` di cancro qualche anno dopo.

Il racconto si sposta da una citta` all'altra e da un continente all'altro inseguendo un filo impazzito. E` stata quasi una coincidenza che Kennedy sia stato assassinato: c'erano troppi complotti, ed erano troppo ottusi, quasi amatoriali. Ma alla fine l'uomo che era involontariamente al centro di tutti questi complotti si rivelo` proprio la figura giusta per compierlo davvero.

"Mao II" (1991)

synopsis forthcoming

The epic-length "Underworld" (1997) ++ The narrative is deliberately discontinuous and uneven, meaning that some events are described in just a few lines around the behavior of one character and some take over dozens of pages with a large cast of characters. The novel is really a collage of novellas with brief interludes connecting each other. Each vignette is mostly a pretext for the writer's verbose verbal gymnastic. The vignettes are held together by the flimsiest of coincidences. This method ends up creating an ever expanding cast of characters; and creating a peripatetic if not picaresque story, a story that shifts not only in time but also in space with each chapter. Its center shifts too: initially it is the story of a baseball, but then it becomes the story of a murder.

The first 60 pages are devoted to a legendary baseball game ("baseball" being a sport popular in the USA) that takes place exactly when the Soviet Union explodes its first atomic bomb and at the time when television is creating its first stars.

There are multiple stories. One story is the obsessive hunt by Marvin for the lineage of the collector item that he bought. One story is Nick's life story, from juvenile penitentiary to garbage-business executive; the biography of a mediocre man who grew up without a father, lost his virginity to a frustrated housewife who later became an artist, went to jail for a silly gun accident, and then started a regular family with a regular job in another state; a job, however, that has to do with the other story of the book, the story of toxic garbage that nobody knows how to dispose of.

Nick works with the rubbish of the consumer society. Klara works with the rubbish of mutually-assured nuclear destruction. Nick treats the atomic bomb like a holy relic. Klara treats it like debris in a dump.

DeLillo mixes the waste of the consumer society, the "mutually-assured destruction" (MAD) logic of the Cold War, and an innocent sport.

Along the way, DeLillo paints a fresco of social and political history. While the masses are involved in subway graffiti, pop art, the Watts Towers, rock'n'roll, stand-up comedy, agit-prop theater, etc; they are also terrified by the Cold War, the hydrogen bomb, the Sputnik, Watergate, the Vietnam War, the Cuban crisis.

There are drawbacks. The ambiguous ending doesn't quite provide closure. The peripathetic baseball never acquires a metaphysical presence, but remains only a pretext to link together a few eccentric stories. The historical character of the novel fails to capitalize on the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the World-wide Web. The nonlinear structure feels gratuitous. It never creates suspense, it only confuses the reader. This vice is not quite as bad as in David Foster Wallace, but nonetheless it feels unnecessary and a bit tedious, like something that old-fashioned postmodernists were supposed to do in order to be taken seriously by literary critics.

In 1951 a group of black boys from poor families watch envious as spectactors enter the stadium where an important baseball game is about to being. Only one boy, Cotter, manages to avoid the police and lose himself in the crowd. Some historical figures are in the stadium watching the game like singer and actor Frank Sinatra, comedian Jackie Gleason, and Edgar Hoover, who was director of the FBI for half a century. Coincidently, this is the day that the Soviet Union has exploded its first atomic bomb - Hoover has just been informed. It is also the day that Gleason is preparing a new comedy, "The Honeymooners" (it will become one of the biggest hits in the history of television). Cotter is approached and befriended by a stranger, Bill. Broadcasting the game is Russ Hodges, a television celebrity. The whole city is listening to Russ' broadcast, including one person who has a tape recorder and will make the only known recording of that legendary broadcast. The game has a spectacular ending with a ball that ends among the crowd. Fans get delirious. Paper is falling all over the stadium. One magazine falls on the VIPs, page by page. Sinatra learns that he is in Life magazine because of the page that falls on him. Hoover saves one page that has a painting by Bruegel, "The Triumph of Death". Cotter had caught the legendary ball and Bill is trying to take it from him. Bill follows him, offers him money and tries to steal the ball; but Cotter does not demur.

2. The novel then fast-forwards 40 years ahead. Nick drives through the Arizona desert to visit an older woman, who used to be his lover when he was still a teenager, Klara Sax, now 72 years old and engaged in an odd artistic project to spray-paint dozens of giant decommissioned warplanes, the ones that used to be on permanent alert, carrying nuclear weapons, ready to retaliate if the Soviet Union attacked the USA. The Soviet Union has just disintegrated. Nick lives in Arizona, is married with Marian and they have two children, Lainie and Jeff, now in their 20s, and Nick's mother lives with them. Lainie already has a child. In the old days Klara was married to one of Nick's teachers, then they separated and he just died a few days earlie. She later remarried. Nick works as an executive for a waste management firm. Nick's father was murdered.

3. Sims (Simeon), Brian and Nick (all working for the waste company) entertain British television producer Jane, who interviewed Klara in the desert. They are nostalgic about a time when people celebrated in the streets a baseball game. They lament the time when an event like that famous baseball game remained unique, not replayed forever on television. They tell Jane that Nick owns the famous ball

4-6. Nick, back home from the desert, is sitting with his mother in front of the tv set. They often watch reruns of Gleason's comedy show. Nick was abandoned as a child by his father and so he carries his mother's name. Jeff still lives at home, unemployed. Nick's boss is Arthur. Nick still wakes up in the middle of the night reliving the day of that game and holds the ball like a relic.

Back to the times of the game in the 1951. Cotter lives with his hardworking mom, his sister Rosie and his good-for-nothing father Manx. Cotter made the mistake of mentioning that he got the baseball that settled the match. His father Manx steals it.

II.1 About 30 years later a video goes viral. A 12-years old child accidentally taped the murder of a man on the highway. The police think that this is another senseless murder committed by a serial killer nicknamed the "Texas Highway Killer".

Nick's Marian accidentally meets Nick's coworker Brian, and they like each other a bit too much.

On a business trip to New York, Brian visits Marvin, an aging collector of baseball memorabilia who lives with his daughter Clarice. Marvin tells Brian that the famous baseball game and the Cold War are related: news of the Russian atomic bomb came during that game, and the radioactive core of the bomb is the size of a baseball. Marvin boasts that he spent a lifetime investigating who may have seized the legendary ball. He paid for all sorts of forensic analysis and almost gave up on finding the man he was looking for, Judson, until the girl's video went viral: the victim of the Texas Highway Killer was Judson. Marvin bought the ball from his widow Genevieve. Brian drives away trying to avoid bridges (that he fears) and ends up at the site where he is supposed to work, the site where humankind is building a tower of garbage, the biggest garbage dump in the world, to become the tallest mountain of the East Coast.

When Nick visits him almost a year later, Marvin, stricken with cancer, is preparing to move in with his daughter Clarice and her husband Carl. Nick buys the baseball from him, even though Marvin admits that he doesn't have the full lineage of the former owners.

Nick pays a visit to his brother Matt and to their mother Rosemary. Nick would like his mother to move to Arizona with him and his wife, but she prefers to remain where she has roots. Matt, married to Janet, has just joined a think tank. Matt knows more than Nick about how their father left them when they were children. Matt walks to their old home, and visits his chess master, Albert. Back home, the tv set is playing over and over again the video of the driver being shot by the Texas Highway Killer, except this time the anchorwoman Sue Ann is actually talking to him over the phone. (This must be taking place before Nick bought the baseball, since the video is the one that led Marvin to the baseball).

Albert, who lives in an Italian neighborhood, used to visit his best friend Eddie when he was dying and cut his hair. They spoke about space burial, apparently at the time when eight astronauts died in a space accident. Albert now lives with his sister Laura. His daughter Teresa lives elsewhere with her two children. Albert lives on his meager pension but manages to send her money occasionally. He is planning to visit her soon. Before leaving town, he walks to the church where Eddie, dead, is waiting to be buried. Albert admits to himself that he is still haunted by the day that Klara left him.

Alma Edgar is a old nun who was famous for her cruel punishments but now spends her time bringing food to a New York slum called "The Wall" because of the graffiti drawn by street artists like Ismael who is actually the man who buys information about abandoned cars from the nuns, so that the nuns can buy food for the needy. This is dangerous drug-dealer territory, but Alma Edgar is not afraid. Tourists visit the area taking pictures of the poverty. She spots a 12-year old girl who lives in the streets, Esmeralda, abandoned by her drug-addict mother, but neither she nor the other volunteers can't catch her. The nun recognizes a photo of Klara in a magazine. It turns out that Matt was one of the boys tutored and terrorized by this nun, and she knew his chess master Albert, married to this Klara, now an artist.

Nick picks up a copy of the same magazine as he walks out of his house towards the airport, bound on a business trip. His wife Marian is now having an affair with his coworker Brian, using her secretary's apartment. She also shoots heroin (that the same secretary Mary Catherine provides).

Richard is a dysfunctional man who still lives with his parents. His father is in poor health. Richard visits his friend Bud for apparently no reason, perhaps more interested in his wife Aetna. We hear his stream of consciousness and realize that this is the Texas Highway Killer, who only likes to talk to television anchorwoman Sue Ann.

III 1. Nick narrates in first person how he met Donna at an orientation seminar in Los Angeles after joining his current employer (this is when his kids were still children). Nick visited Watts Towers, colossal sculptures built of found objects. That seminar was mostly a chance for couples to experiment with other sexual partners, and Donna gladly flirted with him. During the conversation we learn that Nick spent time as a teenager in a juvenile penitentiary for killing a man. During that conference he discussed with his coworker Sims the various conspiracy theories about a ship that was circled the globe trying to find a developing country willing to accept its cargo: was it toxic chemicals or mob's heroin? Nick also met Jesse, a garbage visionary

The novel than shifts to the time when Marvin was looking for a sailor named Chuckie, whose father had owned the baseball at some point. Marvin is in San Francisco with his wife Eleanor to meet this person and find out who sold the baseball to his father. They visit a collector named Tommy. Marvin is obsessed with discovering the lineage of the baseball all the way back to the first owner. Marvin reminisces of the time he and Eleanor traveled to the Soviet Union to track down his communist half-brother. Marvin suspects that Greenland does not exist or hides some great mystery.

Then back to Sims and Nick, who are still taking about the mysterious ship. Sims now thinks that it carries human waste and the corpse of a mobster. Sims has another conspiracy theory: that the census lies about the real number of black people in the USA. Nick reminisces about his murder: he killed a man called George. Back home, he tells his wife Marian about his brief extramarital affair with Donna.

Back to the day after the game, while the Korean war is raging, Manx meets his friend Antoine, to whom he has just sold two snow shovels that he stole from somebody, while a street preacher is shouting something about the atomic bomb and how only insects will survive it. He mentions to Antoine that his son Cotter got the baseball that settled the game.

IV. In 1974 Klara Sax is in New York while the World Trade Center is being constructed and president Nixon is being impeached. Her daughter Teresa, now in her 20s, is visiting. Klara's friends include the art dealer Esther, who is looking for a graffiti artist who signs himself Moonman 157; the filmmaker Miles, the young and ambitious black artist Acey Greene, the art collector Carlo Strasser, etc. Klara reminisces of her teenage years when her mother was worried about Japan invading China and her friend Rochelle was already sexually active.

Matt works at a top-secret project in New Mexico that has to do with atomic bombs. His friend Eric is involved in even more top-secret work at that location, known as "the Pocket". They discuss the secret studies carried out on people who were exposed to nuclear radiation, and Eric thinks that the military exposed them on purpose. Matt takes off for a camping trip with his girlfriend Janet, a nurse who lives in Boston. He tells Jane that he just wants to spend a few days in the wilderness, but the truth is more complex. He wants to check out something that Eric told him about psychic warfare, about people secretely trained by the army in telepathy and clairvoyance He thinks of his brother Nick, who studied in a Catholic school and now lives nearby in Arizona; Nick who still believes that their father Jimmy did not run away but instead was killed. He also wants Janet to talk him out of his job, which he doesn't like, but Janet instead is proud of his job: making weapons safer. The Vietnam war, notably Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos, is in the background of his thoughts. A supersonic warplane flies over their jeep and scares Janet.

Klara and Miles attend the premiere of a rediscovered Eisenstein film that was hidden for decades by the communists. They meet Klara's friend Esther and her husband Jack. Meanwhile we learn that Moonman 157, the famous graffiti artist, is the same Ismael who deals with the nuns. He is mourning Skaty 8, another graffiti artist who was hit by a train. Klara tells Acey how she made love to an underage kid. while her mother-in-law was dying. Klara reminisces when she divorced Albert and regained her maiden name of Sachs, distorted in Sax She then married the art collector Carlo, who already had three children, while she had one; but now she has an affair with Miles.

V. In 1952 the teenager Nick was in jail for killing George. He is informed by the psychologist that his father, who had disappeared six years earlier, was the third person in the room when he killed George. Nick was released early and sent to a Catholic reform school in the north. Released from prison and school, Nick got a new girlfriend, Amy, and they basically lived in her car until they moved to two different cities, seeing each other intermittently, until she had to get an abortion. Meanwhile the young Eric was masturbating while his mother worried about the Russian rocket Sputnik. Every now and then the story fast-forwards to shows by corrosive anti-establishment comedian Lenny Bruce in the 1960s, mocking the Cuban missile crisis that almost caused a nuclear war. At this time the baseball was owned by Charlie, who worked for a marketing agency. Now it was the era of the civil-rights marches and FBI director Edgar Hoover was busy persecuting urban guerrillas.

At the peak of the protests against the Vietnam War, in 1967 (cameo appearance of the San Francisco Mime Troupe), Marian, who worked in Chicago, told her parents that she was in love with Nick, who lived in Arizona, and determined to marry him; while Charlie, having lost the baseball when he divorced his wife and having served the army in Greenland, was bombing the Vietnamese as a navigator on a B-52 and befriending the black bombardier Louis, who had witnessed the atomic bomb tests and who lectured Charlie on Long Tall Sally's real ethnicity (a black prostitute).

Back to when Nick was still single, in 1965, Nick met his childhood friend Jeremiah and told him of the girlfriend he had in Chicago, Marian, and of his job trying to change the educational system. Later in the year there was a massive blackout that affected the East Coast and part of Canada (true fact). Three years later he was married.

The novel then rewinds to the day after the baseball game, when Cotter's father Manx sells the baseball to Charlie.

VI is about Nick's and Matt's childhood in the Italian neighborhood. Albert, their tutor, talks to his barber George about Matt's chess skills, and then asks a priest, his friend Andy, if he can talk to Nick, who is instead a troubled teenager. This is the day after the baseball game and the Soviet atomic test. Both events are featured in the newspaper, and Albert cannot believe that the expression "the shot heard around the world" refers to the soon-to-be-legendary baseball than to the atomic test. We learn from their conversation that Matt's and Nick's father was a bookmaker and disappeared five years earlier. At home Nick is still thinking about the great baseball game. Albert returns home, where his wife Klara is nursing their two-year old daughter. Nick and his friend Juju/Giulio steal a car. Then they meet George the waiter, an illiterate man who likes to play billiard, and realize that everybody knows about it. Jimmy, Nick's and Matt's father, was a bookmaker. Their mother Rosemary fondly remembers when they lost a huge sum of money because Jimmy was hiding it in a secret pocket of the coat and she sent the coat to be washed. While the child Matt keeps winning at chess against his tutor Albert, and is being terrorized in Catholic school by his teacher, the nun Alma Edgar, Nick drops out of high school and takes a low-wage job. Nick is fascinated with George the waiter, a lonely man and lives with his elderly grandmother. George tells Nick that masked gunmen robbed the billiard place. George also initiated Nick to heroin. Albert's wife Klara is becoming a painter, and his dying mother lives with them. When the mother dies, Klara seduces the 17-years old Nick, who is helping unload a truck under her window. It takes a few days for Nick to realize that he is having an affair with Albert's wife and that they make love in the dead woman's bed. At the billiard place Nick learns that they found out who organized the robbery and that they quietly killed him. (By this point we know that we are approaching the day when Nick commits his murder, but the story of the baseball has faded away). Rosemary worked for an attorney. That attorney had helped her financially when she hired a private detective to locate her missing husband Jimmy. Nick always thought that his father had been kidnapped, but one day Mario the mobster (who has just killed the billiard-room robber) tells him that it is simply impossible. Albert spends his spare time with older men who play cards. One day he accidentally sees George the waiter in a room with a strange expression on his face (drugs?) One other day the same George finds a gun and shows it to Nick, telling him that it is not loaded. Nick aims it at George's head and pulls the trigger: the gun is loaded, George is killed on the spot, and Nick is arrested. Nick remains puzzled that George said the gun was not loaded, as if he wanted to be killed by Nick..

The epilogue fast forwards to the present, when Nick the agent of the waste processing company is flying to Kazakhstan with his coworker Brian. A Russian named Viktor has created a company that is willing to destroy dangerous waste with underground atomic explosions. By now Nick has figured out that Brian has slept with his wife. In fact, his wife Marian told Nick, despite the fact that Brian was the one who wanted to end the affair. They visit a clinic that takes care of the victims of nuclear radiation. Now the underground test site is used to dispose of radioactive waste. Then the novel jumps forward. Nick is back in Arizona. His marriage with Marian is actually doing better. He has been promoted to an executive position that mostly consist in travel and talks. This older and wiser Nick looks back at his life. The news media forgot about the Texas Highway Killer; he finds his baseball on a shelf, not knowing that the two are bizarrely related.

The nuns learn that Esmeralda, the 12-years old girl who slept in the streets of the slum, has been raped and killed. They look for help from Ismael to find out who did it. He is homosexual, something that Catholic nuns shouldn't forgive, but he helps the nuns feed the hungry. Esmeralda becomes a sensation because thousands of people, including the nuns, swear that they can see her face in the night projected by the lights of the trains. Sister Alma Edgar dies and it sounds like she doesn't go to heaven but to cyberspace. The novel hints at a quasi-spiritual link between the nun, Sister Edgar, the nuclear bomb, and the politician, Edgar Hoover, in cyberspace.

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