BOOK REVIEW: ‘Americana’ by Don Delillo
I enjoy making sure to read the first published works of great writers, as they are so often instructive as to the thematic construct and style of their later works and give evidence (sometimes) of their greatness yet to come. Being a somewhat late bloomer as a writer, Don Delillo published his first novel, Americana, at the age of 35.
The book is told in the first person narrative by David Bell, a successful network television program producer operating in New York. He is only 28 years old and has achieved a decent level of financial success and professional stability. He has reached that level of power and influence within his company so common even today that allows him to waste most of his time at work doing nothing besides taking frequent lengthy liquid lunches with colleagues, playing sexual games with secretaries, and shooting wadded-up paper balls into his trash can for hours on end behind the closed door of his office.
David Bell is also recently divorced from his first true love, Merry — and lays out the age-old realities of a man and woman growing apart through boredom, divergence in their respective different levels of maturity, the tedium of the same old routines, and the inability to invent and execute new ideas in furtherance of preserving a marriage. It is a common story in the American culture, and Delillo also successfully and convincingly tells the story of two such people — now divorced — still relying on each other’s familiarity and some kind of still burning sexual spark and physical and mental need for each other — indeed, that need perhaps better stated as a pleasant familiarity with each other.
Delillo, through David Bell, paints the scene of the all-too-familiar tedium and boredom inherent in large American corporate cultures with superb passages such as:
“I learned to distrust those superiors who encouraged independent thinking. When you gave it to them, they returned it in the form of terror, for they knew that ideas, only that, could hasten their obsolescence. Management asked for new ideas all the time; memos circulated down the echelons, requesting bold and challenging concepts. But I learned that new ideas could finish you unless you wrapped them in a plastic bag. I learned that most of the secretaries were more intelligent than most of the executives and that the executive secretaries were to be feared more than anyone. I learned what closed doors meant and that friendship was not negotiable currency and how important it was to lie even when there was no need to lie. Words and meanings were at odds. Words did not say what was being said nor even its reverse. I learned to speak a new language and soon mastered the special elements of that tongue.”
The first third of the book, comprising “Part One,” is a fast-paced entertaining wade through the goofiness and simultaneous terror of office politics. Delillo’s writing is tight and convincing in this section, and I was reminded of the similar corporate office debunking that Joseph Heller’s protagonist gives in Something Happened, yet I realized after finishing this book that it was 1974 when Heller published that book… and so perhaps his book (thematically) derives somewhat from this book by Delillo.
Delillo’s David Bell is a supreme narcissist in contrast to Heller’s Bob Slocum, who is an older more washed-out narrator who has lost his youthful idealism and surrendered totally to the grim grip of restless pragmatism and remains shackled to the path of pointlessness, operating simply to run out the clock, so to speak, of his boring life of lost dreams.
David Bell, while vaguely confused as to his future and the source of his restlessness, sets out upon a cross-country television filming project, ostensively to interview Navajos on their reservation in Arizona, and this comprises the last two thirds of the book.
There is a lengthy interlude where David Bell recounts growing up and the mysteries, oddities, and idiosyncrasies of family — particularly his parents — and the reader gains knowledge as to the genesis of Bell’s own idiosyncrasies and, to that end, his neuroticism.
The smallest section of the book deals with the strange aimlessness of his road trip which includes a lengthy stopover in a tiny middle American town where he meets and shoots film of a strange cast of characters that he meets there—films them reciting scripts that he has written which, the reader knows, concern different facets of his own experience.
There is a wandering kind of vague surrealism to this section of the book, and while it is interesting, it seemed to me overly lengthy and lacking in the blow-by-blow energy of the first part of the book.
Of course, David Bell never gets to Arizona on time—indeed, the reader is made to believe that somewhere along the way, after failing to meet the network’s film crew waiting out in Arizona, that Bell has been terminated from his company.
When Bell finally does reach Arizona, he arrives as a nearly broke hitchhiker being driven by a strange man who runs a test track for automakers situated out in the southern Arizona desert outside of Tucson. I will leave that scene unspoken of now, as it’s a bizarre and unsettling one.
The closing paragraphs of the book finds him in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, and then him purchasing a flight to return home to New York.
The brief scene in Dealey Plaza — site of the assassination of John Kennedy is an interesting thing to be found in this, Delillo’s first book, for it would be 17 years later in his writing career (1988) when Delillo published the novel Libra to bestselling acclaim, which is a fictional portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald prior to, and up to, the day of the assassination. Perhaps in “Americana” we see the most rudimentary origins of a later, greater work of fiction—for the importance of this brief scene in Dallas is, in this book, vague and unclear.
Americana is well worth the read. One gets a clear understanding of David Bell’s character — if not a clear resolution as to what happens to him post-novel.
Even in this first work, Delillo demonstrates his mastery of characterization and vivid word imagery and his truly unique ability to infuse his work with his special brand of vague unease which has always been his manner of portraying the uniquely American brand of cultural paranoia and social isolation.
Delillo is also a master of painting even small-part and non-central passing characters with a vividness that makes them unforgettable to the reader in their odd idiosyncrasies.
While two thirds of this novel take place while on the road, I would not call it a road book in the great American tradition of road novels. It is more of a vivid (if somewhat rambling, at times) soliloquy of a man who allows himself to become unmoored to his responsible realities for a number of weeks.
If there is any weakness in the book it is that we don’t know if David Bell finds resolution for himself—that the book ends with him heading home to New York is not, with all the scenes and occurrences throughout, enough to imply resolution to a reader that reads deeply.
The book is certainly an extremely powerful first novel by a writer who has now attained the status of being widely recognized as one of America’s greatest living writers — indeed, one of just a handful who are often considered to be American possibilities for a Nobel Prize. Who knows? The 2016 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was none other than the great Bob Dylan, and in all of Delillo’s work, it cannot be denied that he, too, makes tremendously meaningful poetry in his prose.
I recommend Americana as a book that stands the test of time — which is rare for a first novel. There is hardly a person, thing, or human situation or feeling described in this book that is not totally relevant to the American cultural and societal realities of today — and that, also, is a rare tribute to Delillo’s abilities and messaging from a book that is now 46 years old.