He has no e-mail address. No modem for connecting to the Web. No computer, even. No answering machine. His book jackets decline to provide biographical details. He won't reveal the town where he lives. For 20 years, he has had cards printed with the message "I don't want to talk about it." A joke, he insists, a self-parody, but still. Naturally, his phone is unlisted.
This is not merely Don DeLillo's way of keeping at bay any overzealous fans of his 11 brainy, sharp, increasingly esteemed novels; it's his instinctual approach to life. He got a million bucks for his new novel, "Underworld," and another million for the movie deal and it's selling so well he'll probably make a third million, but he has only one credit card. In the hotel bar, with so many fine products from the world's distilleries and vineyards available for the asking, he asks for a glass of water.
"I have a personal inclination not to do certain things," he says. Maybe many things. He doesn't vote, calling himself "a dropout." He claims not to have had a political thought since the Vietnam War. He doesn't buy much. "I'm a worthless citizen. I'm only a marginal consumer." He doesn't give lectures, attend conferences or make the gossip columns. One TV appearance was quite enough. His strongest personal sense is of "unbelonging." Plus, he's shy.
Call it restraint, or caution, or disinclination, or a willingness to absent oneself. No matter what term is applied, the 60-year-old DeLillo would seem destined to produce only pale, slim novels, books as empty of apparent stimulus as the writer's own life. But it doesn't work that way. His novels use exquisite prose to take on large themes, particularly this one: What makes Americans unhappy? "Underworld," an 827-page magnum opus, tracks more vividly than any other work the upheavals of life in this country during the last half century.
The story begins by describing a real-life event: how the New York Giants, losing the 1951 pennant-deciding game 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth, miraculously pull off a victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers thanks to Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World." "The game doesn't change the way you sleep or wash your face or chew your food. It changes nothing but your life," thinks 16-year-old Nick Shay, the novel's central figure; many years later, Nick will buy the ball that Thomson hit, proof of the game's continuing hold on him.
Other, more deadly games are being played that day. J. Edgar Hoover, attending the game with his pals Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason, hears that the Soviets have exploded an atomic bomb. The explosion and the game will battle it out on the front pages the next day. The Cold War has been joined.
"Underworld" is a complex swirl of invented lives and re-imagined history, a tome in which reviewers found many different things to praise and which literary scholars will chew on for decades. More surprisingly for such a big, relatively demanding book, it has also been embraced by the public. In less than two months, it has gone through 10 printings, for a total of 295,000 copies. In a culture that prizes the short and the shallow, this is an astonishing number.
"The market is a strange thing, almost a living organism," comments the crazy, unsuccessful writer in "Great Jones Street," DeLillo's 1973 novel about paranoia, rock music and the ravages of fame. "It changes, it palpitates, it grows, it excretes. It sucks things in and then spews them up. It's a living wheel that turns and crackles. The market accepts and rejects. It loves and kills."
At the moment, it loves DeLillo. He's up for next week's National Book Award, which he won in 1985 and which has become probably the biggest prize for a work of fiction. Certainly it's got the most hoopla: There are two days of events, including an autograph session, a reading in a theater, a private and an official reception. The awards dinner itself features sweaty people in tuxes, a gaggle of media, faces turned in anticipation to catch a reaction as your name is, or is not, called from the podium.
DeLillo has just gotten his instructions from the awards committee on what to do and where. "They're complex," he says glumly, "like what you would need for an assault on an enemy city." It doesn't help that most observers are betting his name will be the one called. An Almost Invisible Man
If he weren't so polite he would go underground, completely and finally evade all who seek to grab hold of him. He reportedly once told friends that he wanted to change his name and disappear, a la the Salingerish hero of his 1991 novel, "Mao II." But he knows that certain labels like "reclusive" and "crazy" and "paranoid" get attached to artists who seek to shut off the world.
These words create a challenge for both fanatical fans and unsavory media, both of whom like nothing better than baiting an unwilling writer in his lair. It's been a game with J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon for three decades now; bit by bit, the writers always lose. Photographs appear in the tabloids, reporters who have never read them stalk them.
By making just enough of himself available, DeLillo hopes to avoid their fate. When a new book appears he does, too. There's a brief tour. He reads from his work, shakes hands, reveals himself to be smaller and more anonymous than in his publicity photos, which look either menacing or wild. He is careful not to give too much away. The anecdote is not his preferred form.
Some bare facts: He grew up in the Bronx, the son of Italian immigrants. Lee Harvey Oswald, whose story DeLillo was to chronicle in his 1988 bestseller, "Libra," lived for a time in the same neighborhood; they never met. The writer majored in communication arts at Fordham, went to work writing copy for a big ad agency. ("Corporations," comments Nick Shay in "Underworld," "are great and appalling things. They take you and shape you in nearly nothing flat.") DeLillo got out early; after his first novel, "Americana," appeared in 1971, he never worked for anyone else. He's considered one of the few major American writers whose work keeps getting better. He is married to a landscape designer; they have no children. Without Barbara, he says, his life would be even more spare.
It's not quite a movement, but DeLillo's low-key, hands-off approach has gained some adherents. David Foster Wallace, the much-acclaimed author of the DeLilloesque "Infinite Jest," notes that "you have to respect the culture's power to suck you in. If you want to write about it, you can't be up to your neck in it. You can't hang out with celebrities being shot by paparazzi. You have to be careful."
Yet DeLillo lives in a suburb of New York, only a short train ride away from the heart of the beast. For serious excitement, he ventures into the city itself. "I absorb a great deal from a relatively small amount of direct experience," he says. "Perhaps I can study the input more closely and more purely."
An example: He takes the subway frequently, most of the time just like everyone else, trying to get somewhere. Yet at the end of a ride, "it seems to me that certain things cling to me, not just for hours or days or weeks but literally for years. Other people, what they wear, what's in their pockets, what's on the advertising signboards. I don't consciously study it while doing something so prosaic as taking a subway from 42nd to 14th Street, but something sticks."
For a brief moment, some of this turns up in the middle of "Underworld," as the narrative darts into the mind of a mid-'70s graffiti artist: ". . . here he was going uptown on the Washington Heights local, every car tagged with his own neon zoom, with highlights and overlapping letters and 3-D effect, the whole wildstyle thing of making your name and street number a kind of alphabet city where the colors lock and bleed and the letters connect and it's all live jive, it jumps and shouts -- even the drips are intentional, painted supersharp to express how the letters sweat, how they live and breathe and eat and sleep, they dance and play the sax."
And the passengers? "People moved along the car, they skated to a seat, they looked at display ads above the heads across the aisle, all without eye motion that you could detect with the most delicate device." A Confluence of Craziness
"Of course I'm crazy. I am completely insane. But before, it meant something. Now everyone is crazy."
So asserted Charles Manson a few years ago. When DeLillo heard it, he sat up straight. It was a clue, another piece of evidence that violence and popular culture were merging, that each was feeding off the other. Behavior once beyond the pale is now prominently and endlessly chewed over in the media.
"You become a consumer of antisocial acts in a way that resembles the manner in which you buy dog food or shampoo," the writer says. "It's a function of the current craze for videotaped repetition."
He tried to avoid everything to do with the spectacle that was the death of Princess Diana, particularly the endless shots of mourners. Their anguish seemed so out of proportion, as if the European continent had been destroyed by earthquakes.
"It was a mass emotion, a crowd emotion -- a form of contagion," DeLillo suggests, carefully choosing his words. "It's because there's nothing else, no guidance. All there is anymore is the consumer world, like a theme park."
When the Cold War ended, he adds, "there seemed to be no more measuring devices for money, for fame. It's happening without that ultimate shadow that used to hang over us. Even the grotesque figures -- megatonnage and kill ratios and the size of bomber squadrons -- somehow that was a ceiling for everything in the culture."
What we're left with is terrorism, consumerism, fame, technology. All these are longtime DeLillo concerns, especially the last one. In his 1978 novel, "Running Dog" -- about an attempt to recover a film made in the last moments of Hitler's bunker -- a character seems to be speaking for the author when he says: "When technology reaches a certain level, people begin to feel like criminals. Someone is after you, the computers maybe, the machine-police. You can't escape investigation. The facts about you and your whole existence have been collected or are being collected."
There's a Web site devoted to DeLillo, quite a good one set up by a scholar named Curt Gardner. Called "Don DeLillo's America," it lists nearly everything knowable about both the man and the novelist, down to the blurbs he has provided other writers, links to all the reviews of "Underworld," critical commentary, interviews in Swedish and a schedule of his appearances around the country. After some of the stops on his tour, reports are filed on what he has said.
The site puts in one place all sorts of information in a way that wouldn't have been possible even three years ago. It's more evidence of a vast system of connectedness that seems to be happening just outside our comprehension, and it unnerves DeLillo just a bit. Ditto the sign he sees in the elevator whenever he goes to visit his publisher: "Closed Circuit Television Is Used in This Car Only to Prevent Vandalism." He sometimes wonders, Used by whom?
"You can't even find a responsible entity. It just happens. It seems this is serious material for a novelist -- trying to understand it, however hard it is to understand. But if you're a fiction writer, you don't have to write clear, logical, essaylike explanations. It's all what you feel, what's in your nerve endings."
He stresses again that he's more emotional, more instinctual, than political. This hasn't prevented him from coming under attack as positively un-American. In one significant broadside, the critic Bruce Bawer wrote in 1985 that most of DeLillo's novels "were born out of a preoccupation with a single theme: namely, that contemporary American society is the worst enemy that the cause of human individuality and self-realization has ever had."
The writer protests that he hardly knows what to say to this, other than that it isn't true. "Underworld," he says, "is a warm and loving book that clearly demonstrates a love for the American language and a number of other things about this culture."
Language is DeLillo's ultimate place of refuge. He talks about the joy of putting sentences together, the near ecstasy of feeling the typewriter keys going down one by one and coming into contact with the sheet of paper. It's a thrill the computer doesn't permit.
"Fiction, at least as I write it and think of it," he wrote in a letter to a cybergroup discussing his work, "is a kind of religious meditation in which language is the final enlightenment, and it is language, in its beauty, its ambiguity and its shifting textures, that drives my work."
No workman loves his tools more, or believes more wholeheartedly that something impressive can be built with them. Arguments that the novel has lost its force and authority don't impress DeLillo.
"If any art form can accommodate contemporary culture, it's the novel," he says. "It's so malleable -- it can incorporate essays, poetry, film. Maybe the challenge for the novelist is to stretch his art and his language, to the point where it can finally describe what's happening around him. I still think it's possible."
This is an increasingly rare sentiment in the literary world -- that the novel still matters on a major scale, and can not only provide an escape from everyday life (any good storyteller offers that) but also help people understand it.
"I believed we could know what was happening to us," says Nick in "Underworld." "We were not excluded from our own lives." It is the novelist's assertion as well as the character's.
The only life DeLillo is interested in excluding is his own. He's cultivated the art of being nondescript so well that the waitress never even returns with the bill. When the writer leaves the bar, he has drunk no more than a few sips of his water. CAPTION: "I absorb a great deal from a relatively small amount of direct experience," says the reclusive Don DeLillo, whose "Underworld" is up for a National Book Award. CAPTION: "If any art form can accommodate contemporary culture, it's the novel. It's so malleable," says Don DeLillo, up for his second National Book Award.