Long before people referred to everything from a Taco Bell taco salad to the latest Katy Perry song as "epic" there were certain creations actually worthy of that description. Great works of art, masterfully crafted symphonies, challenging pieces of literature. Don DeLillo's Underworld can be rightfully described as epic.
It's size alone is daunting. Weighing in at around five pounds (give or take) and at nearly 1000 pages, Underworld is a lot to take on. It's subject is equally grand, the latter half of the 20th century in the United States of America. This is "great American novel" kinds of stuff. It begins with baseball (and how American is that) and then expands itself from the 50s into the 90s, but in reverse; constantly looking back to yesteryear. The approach itself is just one more way that DeLillo brilliantly addresses the very 20th century American themes of nostalgia and regret.
Nick Shay is our protagonist (of a sort) and his wife and brother and mother and lover all have their roles to play. But so do Frank Sinatra and Lenny Bruce and Jackie Gleason. So do the Dodgers and the Giants. So does the city of New York. This is about actors and artists and aspirations, it's about heartache and fallen heroes. It's about the Cold War and the American family. And it's about trash. Literal trash (Shay works in waste management) and trash as metaphor for all the waste that can pile up in our lives and all the wasted time and effort we can spend on acquiring it. This book is about so much, that it's a wonder that DeLillo could fit it all in. It is sweeping in its scope; a grand vision. It is one amazing piece of work.
So, why (according to Goodreads) would I only give this book 4 stars instead of 5? Because this is also a long and rambling read. Make no mistake, it is intentionally done; DeLillo accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do. But that doesn't mean it doesn't bog down a bit. I've read big books before; Wallace's Infinite Jest and Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov are among my favorites. But those books have a lot to say about a few things and a specific set of people, and so they draw me in with the details. DeLillo does that (most of the time) as well, but he also wants to talk about everything and in his attempt to leave nothing out, he occasionally makes you wish he had. In order to communicate the sheer mass of all their is, DeLillo often seems as if he's attempting to bury his readers in it. It can be a bit overwhelming.
But, for the most part, this was well worth the work. DeLillo is a master at cutting to the heart of the American psyche and psychosis and much of his best work can be found in this book. When you have the time, I highly recommend spending it on this book. It will certainly not be time wasted.