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WHITE NOISE by Don DeLillo Kirkus Star


by Don DeLillo

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0140077022
Publisher: Viking

DeLillo, whose recent taste for fashionable conspiracy and political/philosophical statement has detracted from his eloquent gifts, is back in top form here: sections of this new novel harken back to his best, early, most generous work—and also extend themselves further into regions of dark domestic poetry and fearful pity.

The family of Jack Gladney, an insecure academic chairing the Department of Hitler Studies at a small college, is made up of the progeny of both Jack's and wife Babette's previous marriages. In this step-family, then, Jack is happy: "Heat, noise, lights, looks, words, gestures, personalities, appliances. A colloquial density that makes family life the one medium of sense knowledge in which astonishment of heart is routinely contained." True, Jack's professional life is kitschy, in a college that also has a whole department of "American environments"—staffed by fast-talking exiles from New York City, focusing on Elvis, car crashes, UFOs, and generic foods. But his private life with Babette is blissful—clouded only by their mutual fear of it ending: who'll be the first to die, to interrupt the happiness? Then, however, about halfway through the book, there's a catastrophe, an "airborne toxic event," a chemical spill that necessitates evacuation of the college town; during the exodus Jack is momentarily exposed to the noxious air when he gets out to re-fuel the family car, an exposure which will later doom him to a premature death. And though the chemical cloud disperses, the now-strengthened fear of death—the title's "white noise"—continues to paralyze Jack and Babette both: she goes so far as to submit to sexual blackmail, to guinea-pig herself in experiments for an anti-death-anxiety drug called Dylar; Jack takes jealous revenge upon the mad scientist pushing the pills. . . while yearning desperately for the pills at the same time. True, the novel goes wrong here—opting for flashy paranoia and sci-fi, relinquishing the naturalness of the family scenes, the evocation of loneliness before death, the apocalyptic clarities of the evacuation after the spill. In the main, though, DeLillo's most human instincts prevail in this book, resulting in a wealth of lyrical, touching, and terrifying scenes: the family eating fried chicken together in their car; a visit by Babette's broken-down father; and, most indelibly, the descriptions of the "black billowing cloud, the airborne toxic event, lighted by the clear beams of seven army helicopters. They were tracking its windborne movement, keeping it in view"—to the awe of those below in cars and on foot.

DeLillo turns a TV-movie disaster scenario into a new Book of Revelations in these pages: a very disturbing, very impressive achievement.