By Joyce Carol Oates
Review of Americana, originally published in the Detroit News, June 27, 1971
The dust-jacket information about Don DeLillo states only that he was born and lives in New York City, and that "Americana" is his first novel. A mysterious figure, therefore, when one considers the sophistication of this work—which is amazing for a first novel indeed.
"Americana" is about the wild and flamboyant disintegration of a young man, and his partial redemption. It is an ambitious, very readable recollection of a confused life; the narrator is evidently telling his own story to himself in a kind of exile on a Mediterranean island.
The narrative technique sometimes suggests the jumbled nature of his experiences, yet it is beautifully executed. There are patches of writing in this book that are really striking.
Superficially, "Americana" looks rather conventional. It brings together a number of preoccupations of American writers, especially young writers: the baffled assessment of one's family and, beyond that family, the American tradition (which is disintegrating); the rejection of the commercial, here represented by a bizarre group of television network executives; the pilgrimage to find the self, which takes the form of a lively "open road" sequence that begins in the East, ends somewhere in Texas, and ends ultimately on the island off the coast of Africa. But DeLillo has given to these themes a miraculous freshness. Nearly every sentence of "Americana" rings true, an insistence upon the authenticity behind the stereotypes of American life. DeLillo is a man of frightening perception.
David Bell is 28, though he seems both younger than 28, and older. He is a television executive working for a network that seems to be made up of utter madmen, and he is doing fairly well. DeLillo's satiric and comic sequences involving the television executives are brilliant; you understand that anyone who does well in this work, as David does, must be in bad shape. Much has been done with the craziness of American image-making and merchandising, but no one has done better than DeLillo, and yet this is only a small part of the concerns of his novel.
David is the son of a preposterously successful and enthusiastic advertising man and a strange, mystic, half-crazy woman who refuses to allow herself to be treated for cancer. David's mother, dead when the novel begins, is the center of his story, the magical core toward which he is constantly moving.
David's mother has said that "magic overwhelms everything" and that this magic renders the individual insignificant; David tries to recreate that magic in order to redeem himself, to prevent his own suicide.
The action of "Americana" covers only a few weeks, during which David attempts to put his life on film. He starts out on a cross-country trip, has some peculiar adventures, works on the film, which will eventually run a full week's time, trying to "explore parts of my consciousness" by a "certain juxtaposition of movies with realities."
If "Americana" comes to no completion, suggests no solution for its young hero's problems, it is only fulfilling its own promise of exploration without entrapment. It is a robust and intellectually exciting work, suffering only the usual defects of such writing—sequences that go on for too long, running on their own manic energy.
DeLillo is to be congratulated for having accomplished one of the most compelling and sophisticated of "first novels" that I have ever read.