Americana by Don DeLillo

Most books fit into some basic genres (mystery, historical fiction, self-help (privileged white women eating Indian food and claiming inner peace), etc.). Americana was a tough one for me to classify. Most simply, I could stick it into two genres. The first half is a Henry Miller-esque rant against corporate America and the second half is, somehow, a road trip story evoking Kerouac. I won’t claim that really makes sense, but bear with me and listen up: this book is worth a read.

Narrated by our hero David Bell, the novel kicks off in New York City where Bell works as an executive at a television network. Think “Mad Men,” but for wacky TV shows instead of ad campaigns. Bell is quite similar to Don Draper in fact (sorry to the 3 people that still haven’t watched “Mad Men”). Divorced, absurdly handsome, respected at work for oddly creative and intuitive ideas, but all the while haunted by rotating girlfriends, flings with his ex-wife, and the ever-present gnawing discomfort hovering somewhere deep in his noggin. Bell is a bit crazy to be sure—one of my favorite moments occurs as he leaves a frustrating party early in the book. Just before departing, he secretly pulls the ice cube tray from the freezer, spits on each cube, and replaces it carefully. Thanking the host, he waltzes out, carefree.

After much ranting and raving in the city, the story really gets rolling when Bell sets off for a TV shoot in Arizona. Piling a few friends (who are also a bit off) into a pickup truck camper, they shoot westward, living the kind of rollicking life that bizarre road trips always entail. Bell gets caught up in a midwestern town where his manic behaviors reach their climax. His final project is shooting a documentary, partially autobiographical, using real people from small town America. That’s all I’ll say here—read the book to savor the final hectic moments and oddly satisfying conclusion.

Bell is haunted, and DeLillo’s vivid, fluid prose darkly reflects this. It’s the first I’ve read of his (fittingly, as it’s his first novel) and I will be back for more. His later works (White Noise etc.) receive constant praise, and I liked this one so much that I can only hope for more writing this satisfying. I want to ramble on more, bending sentences of tight, endless prose into perfectly apt descriptions over and over (seriously, this is some tight writing!), but I’ll leave it at that. DeLillo’s hero/nutcase David Bell is a character for the ages. Strap in.

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