Don DeLillo, Underworld

This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day–men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts, going to a game.

In honor of October and the playoffs and the way that baseball has worked its way into our collective psyche time and time again, here is a sentence from early in DeLillo’s New York epic, a bit of expert scene-setting at one of the most famous games of all time, when Bobby Thomson hit a walk-off home run to carry the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers and win the pennant in 1951.

I love the understatement of this sentence at the same time that it’s setting us up for something big. “This is just a kid,” DeLillo writes, and the crowd is just a crowd, “not a migration or a revolution,” just a collection of “small reveries and desperations,” just a group of people “going to a game.” It’s easy to overstate the importance of sports or the heroism of the players–cheesy announcers do it all the time–but DeLillo’s not falling into that trap. He’s showing us how we don’t need overstatement to get to something grand. DeLillo could also have written something like, “This is just a kid who is part of a crowd going to a game,” but instead he shows us who that crowd is and why they’re there without singling out any one of them.

The literary pair of this sentence is a much shorter one that immediately precedes it:

Longing on a large scale is what makes history.

That is a big statement, both in its claim and in its compact, symmetrical construction. It’s a line of hexameter with a dramatic pause in the middle, and it lands us hard on that big word at the end: history. This concise, big statement wouldn’t work as well if it wasn’t followed by an understated, smart description of the kid and the crowd and what they carry with them. Notice that, at the end of the latter sentence, for a second, it seems that it is not the kid or the men or the sailors headed to the game but the “stray tumble of their thoughts,” as if the thoughts themselves had their own lives.

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