Spanning five decades and using recurrent images (garbage, graffiti, a smudged baseball) to link dozens of vignettes and characters, the mammoth new novel by Don DeLillo (White Noise, Libra) takes for its subject nothing less than the complete Cold War. But though Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam haunt its pages, as do oil embargoes, student riots, and the arms race, Underworld is not a political novel. It is a black comedy about the psychic fallout of nuclear terror: what it felt like to exist year after year with the knowledge that ”every privilege in your life and every thought in your mind depends on the ability of the two great powers to hang a threat over the planet.”

Underworld is also, far and away, the most anticipated serious book of the fall season. Scribner paid close to $1 million for it, gambling that it had acquired a property with the breakout appeal of, say, The World According to Garp. Maybe so, but reading DeLillo’s brainy, fractured narrative is much like running a marathon: With its complex satisfactions comes a sheer exhaustion.

The novel opens with a tour de force re-creation of the final game of the 1951 pennant play-off between the Giants and the Dodgers. As the winning home run ball, Bobby Thomson’s ”Shot Heard Round the World,” bounces in the bleachers at the New York Polo Grounds and is snapped up by a young gate-crasher named Cotter Martin, J. Edgar Hoover — in attendance with cronies Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra — mulls over bad news he’s just been delivered by a whispering messenger. The USSR has tested an atomic bomb. Baseball and impending doom; innocence and innocence lost; the narrative links them closely across the fractious decades that follow.

But in DeLillo’s fiction, locating the ideas and organizing principles is always easier than finding and engaging with the story. That seems especially true here. Characters arrive, seize our attention, then disappear for hundreds of pages. Or they vanish utterly. A subway-car graffiti vandal, a serial killer in Texas, a radical black painter, an obsessive (and hilarious) collector of memorabilia: Just as we develop real curiosity about them, they’re gone. Even those characters who remain throughout the novel live lives whose central mysteries are finally unknowable.

Nick Shay, a Bronx-born, James Dean-era juvenile delinquent (he spent time in a correctional facility for criminally negligent homicide) grows up to be a waste-disposal consultant, a kind of hipster executive who sees products as garbage even when they sit ”gleaming on store shelves, yet unbought.” Years earlier, Nick’s father, a small-time bookie, strolled out one day for a pack of cigarettes and never came home. Ever since, Nick has chosen to believe that he was killed by gangsters and buried in a swamp. If it’s a myth, it’s a useful myth. In DeLillo’s America, self-deception, like baseball, is a great national pastime.

Nick Shay is the character most often present in the novel (and the only one who gets to narrate his own story); other characters are connected to him, intimately or tangentially. His guilt-ridden younger brother, Matt, works as a ”consequence” analyst at a nuclear weapons facility; Matt’s chess teacher was married briefly to Klara Sax, a world-famous conceptual artist…and Klara once had an adulterous affair with a teenage Nick. Underworld‘s major players are hyper-conscious men and women filled with deep longings. They just never display much passion.

DeLillo also traces, and dramatizes, serial possession of the Bobby Thomson baseball, and as it passes from one owner to the next during the Age of Anxiety, going from Cotter Martin to, finally, Nick Shay, Underworld wends its way, back and forth, from the atomic saber rattling of the 1950s to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Fear and paranoia turn to greed and cynicism as the national security state seeds the triumphant consumer culture. The last word in this massive, brilliant but meandering and too-often undramatic 800-plus page novel is peace. I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to laugh, that it’s meant as a bitter joke. A-

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