Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Don's Nine Lives

Since the departure of John Updike in January of 2009, a fair number of literary critics have crowned Don Dellilo the new king of American letters. Delillo's most recent title, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories (Scribner, 2011) provides the first and only collection of Delillo's short stories, nine total, spanning a thirty-two year vein that runs the gamut of genre and subject matter.

One makes the assumption that these nine stories represent the lifetime output of DeLillo in the short form, and each story demonstrates a nuance of the gifted writer and, perchance, a timeline of his literary development.  "Human Moments in World War III", one of the earliest stories published in Esquire in 1983, shows DeLillo in raw fantasy mode exploring a futuristic society where both natural disasters and human hatred have reduced the population to basic animalistic instincts. And "Baader-Meinhof", published in The New Yorker in 2002 nearly twenty years later, combines art appreciation and sexual desire into a single piece that resonates with loneliness and despair.

His signature story, "The Angel Esmeralda", I recall reading in The Best American Short Stories anthology in 1995 and represents DeLillo at his best--a social commentator of some large proportion, reminiscent even in shorter form of his comprehensive, sprawling masterpieces of novel like Libra and White Noise, where DeLillo has made a mastery and a name for himself as a chronicler of key notes in American history.

Unlike Updike, whose prodigious output of short story volumes was second to none (along with novels, poetry, book reviews, and essays of every persuasion), DeLillo's focus has remained steadfast on the longer form of the novel and the stage play--and these, squarely fiction. But one could make the case, I suppose, that he now reigns supreme in the longer forms.

I was glad to read DeLillo's short story collection (and to shelf another first edition), and his lifetime work in the short form is unique, both in brevity and in scope.  One would be hard-pressed, I think, to find another short story collection from any writer that would demonstrate, in a lifetime output of nine short tales, such a cornucopia of subject matter and (sur)realism.

But at Don's advancing age, what can we really expect to see from him--from this point on--within the pages of the American magazine?   


Ned Steele said...

just bought the book. read the first two stories...first one didn't thrill me, but the second one was very, very entertaining..even worthy of discussion about war-peace, engagement-distance, global-view vs provincialism.

Todd Outcalt said...

The stories get a bit richer and fuller as DeLillo matures into the 1990s work...Angel Esmeralda is probably his best and also worthy of discussion regarding violence and the place of faith in seeking reconciliation and healing.