Modern Culture18 Dec 2009 08:00 am
Don DeLillo is the author of Underworld, a massive, sprawling look at Cold War America that takes in everybody and everything from J. Edgar Hoover to Lenny Bruce and Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Being concise isn’t often listed among DeLillo’s virtues. Even that brilliant opening to Underworld, the Dodgers/Giants pennant game with “The Shot Heard Round the World” at the end, was long enough to merit separate publication as a novella: Pafko at the Wall.
But nestled deep into Underworld, at page 227, is a little masterpiece of brevity, a veritable prose poem about the Challenger disaster, as told by “Bronzini.” (You’ll have to read the whole book to learn about him.) Here it is:
“Space burial. He thought of the contrails on that blue day out over the ocean, two years ago if that’s when it was–how the boosters sailed apart and hung the terrible letter Y in the still air. The vapor stayed intact for some time, the astronauts fallen to sea but also still up there, graved in frozen smoke, and he lay awake in the night and saw that deep Atlantic sky and thought this death was soaring and clean, an exalted thing, a passing of the troubled body into vapor and flame, out above the world, monogrammed, the Y of dying young.
“He wasn’t sure people wanted to see this. Willing to see the systems failure and the human suffering. But the beauty, the high faith of space, how could such qualities be linked to death? Seven men and women. Their beauty and ours, revealed in a failed mission as we haven’t seen it in a hundred triumphs. Apotheosis. Yes they were god-statured, transformed in those swanny streaks into the only sort of gods he cared to acknowledge, poetic and fleeting. He found this experience even more profound than the first moonwalk. That was stirring but also a little walkie-talkie, with ghosted action, movements that looked computerized, and he could never completely dismiss the suspicions of the paranoid elite, the old grizzled gurkhas of the corps, that the whole thing had been staged on a ranch outside Las Vegas.”
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