- - Friday, December 23, 2011

By Don DeLillo
Scribner, $24 211 pages

”When my head is in the typewriter, the last thing on my mind is some imaginary reader,” Don DeLillo told a Paris Review interviewer in 1992. “I don’t have an audience; I have a set of standards.”

That may explain why, despite having won (or deserved to win) almost all the fiction-writing awards given in this country, he remains, for many readers, a yet-to-be-acquired taste.

In the same interview, Mr. DeLillo immediately expanded the previous statement: “But when I think of my work out in the world, written and published, I like to imagine it’s being read by some stranger somewhere who doesn’t have anyone around him to talk to about books and writing - maybe a would-be writer, maybe a little lonely, who depends on a certain kind of writing to make him feel more comfortable in the world.”

So, rather than writing for an “imaginary” reader, Mr. DeLillo writes for an “imagined” one who may be somewhat uncomfortable in the world. It doesn’t sound like he writes for the average intelligent reader, which is, of course, his absolute right. But I think it goes a long way toward explaining why he doesn’t have more readers, imagined or imaginary, virtual or real.

Readers who have been put off by the heft and dead-seriousness of novels such as “Americana,” “White Noise,” and “Underworld” will welcome “The Angel Esmeralda,” for its structure, its brevity and its relative accessibility. And new readers will find the slim book an excellent introduction to the genius that is Mr. DeLillo. In it, readers will meet, or re-meet, a master writer in full command of his powers. And, who knows, reading these stories may even make them feel more comfortable in this world.

“The Angel Esmeralda,” the title story, is a powerful account of a seemingly miraculous event in an unseemly neighborhood, the South Bronx. In it, Mr. DeLillo contrasts the worldview of two nuns, one very “modern” and the other very traditional, both of whom are striving mightily to do the Lord’s work in a hostile environment.

Mr. DeLillo’s trademark ability to wring the matter of real life out of the minutiae of daily existence is evident in such tales as “Creation” and “Human Moments in World War III,” which comprise the first of the volume’s three sections.

In the former story, a man and a woman who have been sailing are forced to remain in paradise when they so badly want to return to their “real” world. In the latter story, two astronauts who are circling the globe - for a reason I will let the reader discover - begin to pick up broadcasts of radio programs from the 1930s and ‘40s. Being scientists, they find this unnerving, as it should not be possible. These old sounds do not compute.

The middle section of the book is made up of three stories: “The Runner,” “The Ivory Acrobat,” and the title story. In “The Runner,” a jogger witnesses what appears to be a random act of violence, but he’s not sure so he doesn’t stop, at least not right away, and he too is unnerved. In “The Ivory Acrobat” an earthquake brings residents of a Manhattan neighborhood out into the street, where some speak to one another for the first time in years. The narrator is extremely unnerved. She reflects that “She wanted her life to be episodic again, unpremeditated. A foreigner anonymous - soft-footed, self-informed, content to occupy herself in random observation.”

It’s not hard to see why Mr. DeLillo agreed, at least partially, with the New York Review of Books’ description of him as “the chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction.”

The four stories in the book’s final section cover the last 10 years. The first short story, “Baader-Meinhof,” was written in 2002. The others, including (the wonderfully titled) “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” “Hammer and Sickle,” and “The Starveling,” were written in the past two years. They give the reader firsthand, you-are-there proof of Mr. DeLillo’s ongoing power.

All nine short stories in this collection were written between 1979 and 2011, and the publisher suggests they offer a range of styles, “from the rich, startling, jazz-infused rhythms of the early work to the spare, distilled, monastic language of the later stories.” But I could see that only in “Creation,” the first story.

Nevertheless, consider this sentence from “The Starveling,” written in 2011: “He did not hope for improved circumstances. This was where he belonged, single window, shower, hotplate, a squat refrigerator parked in the bathroom, a makeshift closet for scant possessions.”

I suggest it’s possible, and esthetically rewarding, to read Don DeLillo for his sentences alone. This handsome little book is an ideal chance to see if you agree.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.



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