Her face was avant-garde
- The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo
Picador, 211 pp, £16.99, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 4472 0757 3
In its winter issue of 1960, Epoch, a quarterly published at Cornell, carried ‘The River Jordan’, a story by ‘Donald R. DeLillo’. It tells of a day in the life of Emil Burke, a mad Manhattan septuagenarian who leads a storefront chapel called the Psychic Church of the Crucified Christ, with a congregation of four. In the morning he descends to the Times Square subway station and writes ‘REPENT!’ on the wall of the men’s lavatory with a crayon. Around noon, he preaches to a crowd outside the Hotel Metropole and is mocked by a ‘Negro boy’ who compares the Trinity to ‘Purity, Body and Flavor’, the advertising slogan for Ballantine beer. Burke retreats with his followers to a bar, where he overhears a young couple talking about sex and is presented with a book of pornography. Finally, in the midst of all this sin, Mr McAndrew, the man who pays the church’s rent, tells Burke he’s going to take his money to the church of ‘the One True Voodoo of Astral Consciousness’ in Harlem. Mr McAndrew is a ‘fat and sinister’ former real estate agent, and a crank. ‘The River Jordan,’ he tells Burke, ‘is a parking space, a movie with much shooting of guns and much grinding of thighs, and a bag of popcorn, buttered.’ The preacher punches him in the mouth.
This is the energetic work of a 24-year-old, but it displays preoccupations that still linger in DeLillo’s work. ‘Martyrdom is a weapon,’ Burke thinks, prefiguring many fanatics to come. At the bar he sees a girl whose ‘face was avant-garde, expressionless, saved from complete monotony by two thin streaks of deep coral lipstick’; this would seem to be a reference to Godard (Breathless came out that year), a touchstone of DeLillo’s. And the notion of a cinema as a church, delivered cynically here, would become for many of his characters, some of them filmmakers, an article of faith. But there’s no denying that the story is apprentice work, with more than a few clumsy lines: ‘a train screeched around a curve and charged into the station; the door slid open and people squirted onto the platform as though ejected from a tube of toothpaste.’ There is the young man’s strained attempt to imagine what it’s like to be old: ‘a thought was no longer an image – a dark and deafening cavern of trains, a pool of sunlight spilling through the church window, a garland of garish faces on a dark street corner – but rather a concept, a vague abstraction of duty, instruction, salvation.’ And the story dwells for pages on Burke’s Jesus complex, juxtaposing it repeatedly with vulgar scenes from the street. Consumerism seems to be, and would prove to be, the stuff that actually interests DeLillo, who was working at the time as a copywriter for the midtown advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, the sort of office Mad Men now attempts to dramatise.
Eleven years later, DeLillo published Americana, a book that begins with a Manhattan cocktail party (‘it was one of those parties which are so boring that boredom itself soon becomes the main topic of conversation’), sends up 1950s family life and 1960s corporate culture, turns into a road novel midway and ends with a sloppy orgy in the Texas desert. The ever ironical narrator, David Bell, is fond of making statements like ‘I was an extremely handsome young man,’ and worships at the altar of Burt Lancaster: ‘Burt in the moonlight was a crescendo of male perfection but no less human because of it.’ ‘I don’t think my first novel would have been published as I submitted it today,’ DeLillo told an interviewer in 2010. ‘It was very overdone and shaggy.’ He has expressed similar dissatisfaction with his novels of the 1970s: ‘I knew I wasn’t doing utterly serious work.’ That may be why his new collection begins in 1979, omitting as much of his published short fiction as it includes.