Don DeLillo turns 85: chronicler of the American "Underworld"

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Don DeLillo wird 85
Chronicler of the American “underworld”

For years he has been considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature and is still unknown to many: the writer Don DeLillo. He writes about US trauma in the 20th century and delves into the fears and neuroses of his protagonists.

The fact that Don DeLillo sometimes lives in a small, somewhat old-fashioned parallel universe can already be seen in his preferred writing instrument. “I use an old, used Olympia that I bought in 1975,” DeLillo told the Guardian last year. He liked the large font, which enabled him to see the words on the page clearly and in relation to the entire sentence.

It is this clarity with which the US writer has been dissecting his homeland with a critical eye for almost 50 years and creating the disturbing image of a mass and media world that leaves the individual no longer having a chance. DeLillo is a master at confronting his readers with feelings of loneliness and alienation, loss and conspiracies. He will be 85 years old this Saturday.

DeLillo alongside Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattinson at the premiere of the film “Cosmopolis” in 2012. The book comes from his pen.

(Foto: picture alliance / dpa)

DeLillo has been one of the favorites for the Nobel Prize for Literature at least since his 1997 novel “Underworld”. Together with Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy, he is counted among the great masters of contemporary American literature. Critics called his descriptions of everyday life smart, funny, and sometimes poisonous.

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The epic “Underworld”, hailed by the critics as the “work of the century”, made the son of simple Italian immigrants an international star. The writer David Foster Wallace wrote him a letter of admiration following the publication. According to media reports, Netflix now wants to take on the material.

In the 800-page novel, DeLillo does not deliver a story about criminals and mobsters of the “underworld”, but one that also spans the dark side of America, a grandiose kaleidoscope of the USA in the second half of the 20th century, like baseball games Nuclear bomb tests, enthusiastic children playing, including drug and violent trauma. It was already DeLillos’ eleventh novel and for the first time it also alluded to his own story. “I’ve always seen myself in sentences,” DeLillo once said in the cult BBC documentary “The Word, The Image, and The Gun”. But he only found his way to these sentences via detours.

From parking attendant to cult writer

Raised in an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx in New York, he only read comics as a child, as he explained in a 1993 interview with “The Paris Review”. As a young man he studied theology and philosophy and kept his head above water with odd jobs – such as as a park ranger. At 28, he quit a job as a copywriter and becomes a writer. But only after years of work and in his mid-30s did he present his debut novel “Americana” in 1971, a story about the exit of a successful filmmaker from the big cinema machine.


DeLillo is where he probably likes best: In the world of letters, words and sentences (picture from 1999).

(Photo: imago/Leemage)

He has received numerous awards for his work, including from the renowned Library of Congress. He received the coveted National Book Award in 1985 for “Weißes Rauschen”, a bitter satire about the threat posed by a poison cloud to a small US town, and the PEN Faulkner Prize in 1992 for “Mao II”.

The master author has written more than 15 novels to date. In old age, he recently noticed, the writing process no longer runs like it used to: “But I’m also much slower. I’m not older and wiser. I’m just older and slower”. Most recently, the short novel “The Silence” came out in 2020, which deals with the complete collapse of the digital structure in the USA in 2022. If it really came to that, only an Olympia typewriter could help.

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