Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Underworld is not a linear narrative, and deals with many intertwined themes. A central character is that of Nick Shay, a waste management executive, who leads an undirected existence in late 20th century America. His wife, Marian, is having an affair with one of his friends.
The novel opens on October 3, 1951, when a young man named Cotter Martin sneaks in to watch the New York Giants (now the San Francisco Giants) play the Brooklyn Dodgers (now the Los Angeles Dodgers). In the ninth inning, Ralph Branca pitches to Bobby Thomson, who smashes the ball into the stands for a three-run homer, beating the Dodgers 5-4 and capturing the National League pennant. Known to baseball fans as "The Shot Heard 'Round The World," the fate of that ball is unknown, but in DeLillo's world, Cotter Martin wrests this incredibly valuable treasure away from another fan he had just befriended and hightails it for home...only to have his irresponsible father, Manx, steal it and later sell it for thirty-two dollars and forty-five cents.
Branca and Thomson are never given much screen time, and Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra only put in cameos, but other historical figures become important parts of the story. J. Edgar Hoover muses on death, loyalty and leather masks while comedian Lenny Bruce faces the Cuban Missile Crisis by impersonating a hysterical housewife shrieking, "We're all gonna die!"
Waste is an extended metaphor throughout the novel. It explores themes of fractured identity and the ways in which meaning is constructed in contemporary American life. A central extended metaphor is that of religion and the underworld of nuclear technology and its power structures.
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