Meeting Don DeLillo

Newsletter 5.1 (2011)

—Jesse Kavadlo

On the day of the announcement, friends from all over the country forwarded me link: Don DeLillo would appear in my city to accept the Saint Louis Literary Society Award.  A book signing, talk, interview, and banquet.  Although I heard DeLillo read from Underworld in 1997, he didn’t answer questions or sign books.  All the better, I thought at the time.  I wouldn’t have to decide whether a signature from an author who seems so uncomfortable with the public constituted some kind of literary betrayal.  Yet now I was guiltily, self-consciously, excited.  More than most novels, DeLillo’s work complicates the simple Meet the Author, since, from Americanaonward, DeLillo has complicated the concept of authorship itself.  In Great Jones StreetRatner’s StarUnderworld, of course Mao II, and now Point Omega, DeLillo has continuously, self-consciously, and ironically questioned the rhetorical triangle between the viewer, the art, and the artist.  Yet his readers can’t be immune to the allure and aura of the author himself.  Bucky Wunderlick’s and Bill Gray’s self-imposed exiles and diatribes against fame couldn’t keep me away.  They just made me feel sheepish about it, then silly for feeling sheepish.

And so on October 21, 2010, I made sure to arrive over an hour before the signing, which was already an hour before the talk.  After all, this was Don DeLillo, and I would be lucky to make it to the front of the line in under a mere hour.  In retrospect, my anticipation seemed sweetly misguided—no one was there yet, and only three other people arrived over the next hour: an Italian (from Italy) grad student writing a thesis on DeLillo, his German (from Germany) Political Science grad student girlfriend, who had road-tripped together from Pennsylvania, and a man in a Saint Louis Cardinals jersey who told me that he wasn’t an academic, but he “really liked Don DeLillo.”  In a way, along with me (former musician turned college professor and New York City émigré to the Midwest) and the venue—the Jesuit-affiliated Saint Louis University—it represented a perfect cross-section, not of DeLillo’s readership, but of his books’ themes.  And of course, just before the signing began, a few dozen others arrived.
When DeLillo was eventually escorted into the room, despite knowing his photos by heart, I didn’t recognize him. He was much smaller than I’d anticipated, which of course struck me as another cause for DeLillo-esque embarrassment.  Why should I care about an author’s physical presence?  Why should we expect writers, of all people, to be larger than life?  Of course, stature is equally unexpected: in person, Jonathan Franzen’s and Octavia Butler’s imposing heights had surprised me as well.  And Michael Chabon was exactly as tall as I expected, whatever that means.  I was awash in sheepishness.

Yet when my turn came and I presented my first-edition hardcover of White Noise, I also gave Mr. DeLillo (a name I’ve now written hundreds of times in academic criticism, syllabuses, and comments to students, but never before with an honorific) a copy of my book, Don DeLillo: Balance at the Edge of Belief.  As I did, I ad libbed, despite the hour to plan, “I’ve spent the last decade thinking about your work.”  Which wasn’t really true: I’d spent the last thirteen years, but “decade” sounded cleaner, and rounding down made me seem less like a Scott Martineau-style stalker or JAK Gladney-esque fraud.  After giving me a humble look of surprise and gratitude, he returned White Noise and graciously took my book.  But as I walked away he called back: “Jesse!”  No amount of Barthes or Foucault, reception theory or reader response, could have prepared me for the visceral fanboy jolt of hearing DeLillo call my name, or what came next: he asked me to sign my book for him.  (And so: “I never imagined I’d sign a book for you.”)  Then he amended his own signature in White Noise, no longer just “To Jesse, A reader, Don DeLillo,” but now, to “A reader and writer.”

Instead of being a scholar, or even an admirer, I got to be the boy in the Mean Joe Greene Coke commercial: “Hey, kid. Catch!”  Despite, then, the hours reading the novels, and years writing the scholarship, the dozens of classes I’ve devoted to helping students ponder DeLillo’s work, it’s impossible to discount the palpable presence of the author himself, however much I—or Don DeLillo—would like.  DeLillo’s own responses in the subsequent Q&A only deepened this contradiction.  Asked about his much-touted reclusiveness, DeLillo denied shunning the press and public, instead suggesting, of his pre-Names career, “No one wanted to talk to me, and I didn’t want to talk to anyone, and everyone was happy.”  Yet he didn’t seem unhappy on the day of the award, only cautious and contemplative, a man who wants his words to embody him rather than allow him to embody the words.  And while many of his other responses to the questions would be familiar to anyone who has followed DeLillo over the years (cheat sheet: “the way the words look on the page,” “typewriter,” “Kennedy,” “Greece,” “Joyce,” and “Godard”), I certainly enjoyed meeting the man and, his response to the contrary, hearing the words outside of the page.

According to interviewer Tom LeClair, Don DeLillo has an engraved card that says “I don’t want to talk about it.”  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t—or shouldn’t—want to listen.