Monday, February 25, 2008

Call Me When You Find America

#5 -- "Americana" by Don DeLillo

Some time back, I read an interview with Richard Powers in which he described throwing everything he knew into his first novel -- because he wasn't sure he'd ever write a second.

You can see that at work in "Americana," dating back to 1971, and one of the only DeLillo novels that I hadn't read (up to now). It's overflowing with ideas -- too many of them, in fact -- a mishmash of thoughts and themes that's sometimes fantastic and sometimes aggravating. It's a stab at a great American novel that ultimately falls short, but gets pretty entertaining and interesting at times along the way.

Briefly: the novel centers around David Bell, rising star in the television industry. The first half is an often sly satire of and stab at the corporate world and the aforementioned TV biz -- the second half follows Bell as he goes out on the road with a few friends, ostensibly to gather material for a new series but ultimately going completely off the rails.

The parts are greater than the whole here. Once we leave New York, it reads more like a collection of loosely-connected short stories than a narrative. It's pretty uneven -- sometimes bitingly and subtly funny, sometimes agonized and enraged, like "Howl" as a novel, sometimes as eye-rollingly pretentious as the worst 4 a.m. dorm conversation.

I wonder how this went over when it first came out -- obviously, DeLillo's gone on to a long and storied career. It's got more going on than 99% of debuts, and while I won't be rushing to re-read this anytime down the line, it's pretty impressive stuff. Now maybe I can finally conquer "Ratner's Star."

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