DeLillo imagines New Year’s Eve in Manhattan, approximately thirty-eight years ago
Computer dating, fashion models, vulgar humour, the pressure to be at the office — the whole "whirl of urban monotony" — plus strange Muslems and American troops fighting in a faraway land where "you can’t tell the friendlies from the hostiles"…
the opening chapter of Don DeLillo’s first novel, Americana (1971):
Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year. Lights were strung across the front of every shop. Men selling chestnuts wheeled their smoky carts. In the evenings the crowds were immense and traffic built to a tidal roar. The Santas of Fifth Avenue rang their little bells with an odd sad delicacy, as if sprinkling salt on some brutally spoiled piece of meat. Music came from all the stores in jingles, chants and hosannas, and from the Salvation Army bands came the martial trumpet lament of ancient Christian legions. It was a strange sound to hear in that time and place, the smack of cymbals and high-collared drums, a suggestion that children were being scolded for a bottomless sin, and it seemed to annoy people. But the girls were lovely and undismayed, shopping in every mad store, striding through those magnetic twilights like drum majorettes, tall and pink, bright packages cradled to their tender breasts. The blind man’s German shepherd slept through it all.
Finally we got to Quincy’s place. His wife opened the door. I introduced her to my date, B.G. Haines, and then began counting the people in the room. As I counted I was distantly aware that Quincy’s wife and I were talking about India. Counting the house was a habit of mine. The question of how many people were present in a particular place seemed important to me, perhaps because the recurring news of airline disasters and military engagements always stressed the number of dead and missing; such exactness is a tickle of electricity to the numbed brain. The next most important thing to find out was the degree of hostility. This was relatively simple. All you had to do was look at the people who were looking at you as you entered. One long glance was usually enough to give you a fair reading. There were thirty-one people in the living room. Roughly three out of four were hostile.
Quincy’s wife and my date smiled at each other’s peace earrings. Then I took B.G. into the living room. We waited for somebody to approach us and start a conversation. It was a party and we didn’t want to talk to each other. The whole point was to separate for the evening and find exciting people to talk to and then at the very end to meet again and tell each other how terrible it had been and how glad we were to be together again. This is the essence of Western civilization. But it didn’t matter really because an hour later we were all bored It was one of those parties which are so boring that boredom itself soon becomes the main topic of conversation. One moves from group to group and hears the same sentence a dozen times. "It’s like an Antonioni movie." But the faces were not quite as interesting.
I decided to go into the bathroom and look at myself in the mirror. Six framed graffiti were hanging on the bathroom wall. The words were set in large bold type, about 60-point, on glossy paper; they were set in a scripted typeface to look real. Three of the graffiti were blasphemous and three were obscene. The frames looked expensive. I noticed some dandruff on my shoulders. I was about to brush it off when a girl named Pru Morrison came in. She was from somewhere in Bucks County, just beginning to get caught up in the whirl of urban monotony. She stood facing me, her body flat against the closed door. She was all of eighteen and I was both too old and too young to be interested in her. Nevertheless I didn’t want her to know about the dandruff.
"Thought I’d wash my hands."
"Who’s that nignog?"
"Pru, I understand Peck and Peck has a special on riding crops this week. Why don’t you run on over?"
"I didn’t know you went out with nignogs, David."
I began to wash my hands. Pru sat on the edge of the tub and turned on the faucet just enough to cause a trickle. I wondered whether this was supposed to have a sexual connotation. Sometimes it was hard to tell about these things.
"I got a letter from my brother," she said. "He’s manning an M-79 grenade launcher. He’s in one of the roughest battle zones. He says every square inch of land is fiercely contested. You should read his letters, David. They’re really tremendous."
The war was on television every night but we all went to the movies. Soon most of the movies began to look alike and we went into dim rooms and turned on or off, or watched others turn on or off, or burned joss sticks and listened to tapes of near silence. I brought my 16mm camera along. It was a witty toy and everyone was delighted.
"He says you can’t tell the friendlies from the hostiles."
"Who?" I said.
"I hate your filthy rotten guts," Pru said.
"Quincy tells me you’ve got a new boyfriend, Pru. Texas A. and M. Some kind of junior cadet. Quincy tells me you met him through a computer dating system."
"That lying bastard."
"Your own cousin, Pru."
"You’ve got dandruff," she said. "I can see it on your jacket. Dandruff!"
Quincy was in rare form, telling a series of jokes about Polish janitors, Negro ministers, Jews in concentration camps and Italian women with hairy legs. He battered his audience with shock and insult, challenging people to object. Of course we were choking with laughter, trying to outdo each other in showing how enlightened we were. It was meant to be a liberating ethnic experience. If you were offended by such jokes in general, or sensitive to particular ones which slurred your own race or ancestry, you were not ready to be accepted into the mainstream. B.G. Haines, who was a professional model and one of the most beautiful women I have ever known, seemed to be enjoying Quincy’s routine. She was one of four black people in the room—and the only American among them—and she apparently felt it was her diplomatic duty to laugh louder than anyone at Quincy’s most vicious color jokes. She almost crumpled to the floor laughing and I was sure I detected a convulsive broken sob at the crest of every laugh. She needed more practice, I suppose. All evening, in fact, she had been smiling at everyone who approached and responding with grave nods to all the social insights directed her way by the scholars in the room. It was confusing. Finally I reminded her that we were supposed to be polite to her, not the reverse. Then I added a brief lecture on the responsibility she had toward her people. She speared a passing hors d’oeuvre and became elegant again.
It was almost over. A few people had already left. It was just a cocktail party and small groups were forming for dinner. In a corner of the room Quincy’s wife was doing a modified cocktail version of what we referred to as her karate striptease, a dance she said she had learned on their trip to the Orient.
In a little while I would ask B.G. where she wanted to eat. She would suggest that I decide. We would go to a small French restaurant way over on the West Side, on the rim of no man’s land, where the wind blows cold off the river and the low bleak tenements breathe decay; and where, at this time of year, there is a sense of total emptiness, of a place that has been abandoned before the boots of war. No one could live there but torn cats and children with transparent bellies, and those distant lights, crackling over Times Square, belong to another city in another age. B.G. would order the frogs’ legs. I would try to impress her by speaking French to the waiter with the warmth and intimacy of a hero of the Resistance greeting an old comrade-in-arms. The waiter would despise me and B.G. would see through my bluff. There would be nothing to do but finish the evening with one of those chain-smoking conversations about death, youth and anxiety. I remembered that I no longer smoked.
"Where would you like to eat?" I said.
But she didn’t hear me. She was talking to a man named Carter Hemmings. Although Carter was thirty years old, or two years older than myself, he was one of my subordinates at the network. I was always very conscious of the ages of men with whom I worked. What I feared most at the network were younger men who might advance to positions higher than mine. It was not enough to be the best; one had to be the youngest as well. My secretary, through some tidy espionage, had been able to learn the ages of all those men whose levels of responsibility were comparable to my own. When she told me that I was the youngest by a full year and three months, I took her to Lutèce for dinner and got her a fifteen-dollar raise. Carter Hemmings was afraid of me. For this reason, and also because it was a time for holiday compassion, for prison reprieves and military truces, I did not interrupt his conversation with B.G. Instead I got myself another drink. Only about a dozen people remained. Sullivan, in her gypsy trenchcoat, stood against a wall. It had been foolish of me to invite her; she looked tense. A Pakistani who worked at the UN was facing her. He held a drink in one hand and an ashtray in the other. Sullivan seemed content to flick her ashes to the floor. I stood directly behind him and tried to get her to laugh by making swinish faces. She slipped her right foot out of her shoe and then, with exquisite nonchalance, tucked her leg way up behind her against the wall so that it disappeared, storklike, behind the shroud of her trenchcoat. She remained that way, on one leg, a cryptic shoe moored beneath her.
Whether on purpose or not, Sullivan always made me feel totally inadequate. I was drawn to her, terribly.
"Because I am a Moslem," the Pakistani was saying, "I do not drink. And yet I feel I must maintain a glass in my hand, or the others, perforce, will think me too solemn and undeviating an individual. We Moslems are very strict in the matter of alcohol, dress and the carnal relations. Perhaps you are tired of these people and would like to go to your flat. May I offer to accompany you? My Plymouth Fury is parked directly across the road. Where do you live?"
"In the hearts of men," Sullivan said.
I moved in on them. The grandfather clock began to chime. I looked at the Pakistani and moved my lips, without speaking, to give the impression that my words were being drowned out by the clock. After eight sustained chimes it was silent and I picked from my thoughts, in mid-sentence, a meaningless travelogue of Switzerland, and continued it aloud. He looked at his glass and then at the ashtray, trying to decide which might be more safely placed on top of the other. He was in unknown territory and wanted to have at least one hand free. Then Quincy came over and began to talk about a new mega-drug he had taken the week before. And the whole scene dissolved before any of us could find out what it was all about.
I went out on the terrace. Automobiles were moving across Central Park, ticking red taillights trailing each other north and west toward the darkness and the river, headlights coming this way, soft orange, the whistling doormen. The park’s lamplights were dull cold steady silver. I was wasting my life.
Everybody called her by her last name. She was a sculptor, thirty-seven years old, unmarried, a tall woman who seemed by her manner or bearing or mere presence to change a room slightly, to make it self-conscious. Sullivan had the kind of face and body which inspire endless analogies and I will try to keep them to a minimum. At parties, appearing in a plain loose dress, flat heels, no makeup, hair long and lifeless and uncombed, she was the woman who was invariably described within good-natured coveys of people as strange, different, curious, remarkable. At such parties, as Sullivan would stand listening to some desolate man describe the ritual terrors of his life, or sit alone patting the swept waist of a guitar, I would hear people speculate on her ancestry. Many seemed to think she might be an American Indian. Others thought her origins wereCatalonian or Polynesian or Dead Sea. Once I heard an admiring woman describe Sullivan’s face as pre-Columbian. To me, she was simply homely. (One’s vengeance, of course, had its sour politics to play.) Her hands were long and grimly knuckled. Her dark eyes seemed trained to remain unamused by whatever passed before them. Her narrow nose, a fencer’s nose somehow, had a tendency to flare unexpectedly, sniffing disaster in someone’s commonplace remark. In all, she was a lean hard over-boned woman. Men were always telling her how very much they wanted to go to bed with her.
I went back inside. Quincy’s wife was sitting on the sofa now, stirring her drink with a toothbrush. Pru Morrison had apparently left. Quincy and two women were sprawled on the floor in front of the TV set. The two women were employed at the network, as was Quincy. One of the women made notes of what he said as he watched the program. I looked around for my date. Sullivan, still roosting on her left leg, was talking to a man who looked like a quonset hut. I began swinging my arms chimpanzee-style and executing heavy little hops. At the same time I inserted my tongue over my upper teeth and gums to create a bulge in the area between nose and upper lip. I hunched way over until my hands dangled below my knees. Sullivan gave me a brief look. Then the man took her glass and went into the kitchen. I straightened up and went over.
"What happened to your ashtray?"
"He had to get back to the office," she said. "Sudden crisis on the subcontinent."
"I should be at the office myself. Everybody’s bucking for my job. It’s a contest to see who stays later. Guy named Reeves Chubb sleeps in his office about three nights a week. His desk is full of dirty shirts. We don’t go in there for a meeting unless his secretary sprays the place with air-freshener. But I’m holding my own. I may even take a vacation one of these days."
"Skiing? All those nymphs in titty sweaters."
"I don’t know," I said. "I’d like to do something more religious. Explore America in the screaming night. You know. Yin and yang in Kansas. That scene."
"Maybe I’ll come with you," Sullivan said.
"I’d like to do it, David. I really would."
"I have to go out West anyway in a few months to do a documentary on the Navahos. I thought I’d take my vacation a couple of weeks before that and spend the time driving out there."
"We can take Pike with us."
"Sure," I said. "He can get somebody to run things for a while."
"We’ll let him map out our route. We’ll give him a battlefield commission. He’ll like that."
I felt good. It was a good idea. The man came back with their drinks. We were introduced and then I went looking for B.G. Haines. The bathroom was empty. I went into the bedroom and examined the coats on the bed. Her coat wasn’t among them. I looked in the closet and it wasn’t there either. Then I went into the kitchen. It was empty too. I stood there awhile. Then I opened the refrigerator door and took an ice tray out of the freezer. There were four ice cubes left. I brought up phlegm from my throat and spat on each of the cubes, separately. Then I slid the tray back into the freezer and shut the refrigerator door.
I went back to the living room. Sullivan was still talking to the round gray man. I couldn’t take my eyes off that empty shoe.