By John Freeman
Don DeLillo would not be an easy guy to spot on the streets of New York. It’s not that his author photo is decades old; rather, it doesn’t capture how small he is, how slight.
Perhaps this is why the author of “Underworld,” “White Noise” and other future classics of American literature recently was temporarily barred entry from the offices of his New York publisher. Apparently DeLillo didn’t produce proper ID or wasn’t assertive enough about his right to be there. After much huffing and rolling of her eyes, the security guard waved the 69-year-old novelist through the gate.
As he passed, she looked over his shoulder with eyebrows raised as if to say, “See the grief I get from yahoos like this?”
As it turns out, DeLillo prefers things this way. He would rather lurk on the margins, noticing without being noticed. Moments later, DeLillo is ensconced in an empty office upstairs, sitting in a chair pressed up against the wall. He remains partially obscured by a computer throughout our conversation, his voice a disembodied whisper.
“What do you really see? What do you really hear?” he ruminates about what makes him a writer. “That’s what in theory differentiates a writer from everyone else. You see and hear more clearly.”
DeLillo has had his ear to the ground of late, and the result is his fourth play, “Love-Lies-Bleeding,” a three-act drama about a dying man and his family’s struggle to decide whether to keep him on life support. Alex Macklin, a landscape painter, has been brought low by a second stroke. Alex’s ex-wife Toinette has not seen him for some time and thinks he should be put out of his misery. His son, Sean, is not so sure, but his illusions have long since run out:
“He’s not aware of you or me or anything else,” Sean tells Lia, Alex’s current lover and caregiver. “He can’t think. He doesn’t know what you’re saying to him. You are not Lia. He is not Alex.” On the day of our conversation, the Supreme Court upheld Oregon’s assisted-suicide law. Back when DeLillo finished the play, Terri Schiavo was in the news, as if summoned by his imagination.
“I didn’t have her in mind particularly,” he says, wincing at how the debate over Schiavo became a political football. “But I did learn some things from that event.”
DeLillo would prefer politics be left out of our discussion. After all, that’s how he wrote the play.
“They are in a state of stark isolation,” he says of his characters, “outside of the influence of lawyers, doctors and clergymen. I wanted them to be dealing simply with their own feelings, emotions and predilections.”
Throughout the play, Alex sits on the stage like a silent witness to his own trial. America’s most outspoken critic of technology has steered clear of it here.
“In this case, I wanted a minimum of systems,” he says. “I mean, there are feeding tubes, but I didn’t want a hospital or a hospital bed. I wanted him sitting in a chair. That was very important to me.”
The starkness gives “Love-Lies-Bleeding” an eerie, astringent feeling, reminiscent of DeLillo’s great 1985 novel “White Noise.” Winner of the National Book Award, that book told the story of a Hitler-studies professor on a Midwestern campus terrorized by an airborne toxic event. Here, in the play’s final crescendo, a flashback, emotions that lie buried rise up out of Alex’s foretelling of his death.
“You’re the one blessing I know,” Alex tells Lia, one year before the final stroke comes. “The last of the body.”
Plays are becoming an increasingly large part of DeLillo’s work. Though best known as the author of novels such as “Americana” (1971), the story of a TV executive looking back on his life, and “Libra” (1988), a tale of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, his work for the stage has earned him comparisons to some theatrical legends.
“I’ve seen some reviews that mention Beckett and Pinter, but I don’t know what to say about that. I don’t feel it myself,” he says.
For “Love-Lies-Bleeding,” DeLillo borrowed lines and structural elements from his first play, “The Engineer of Moonlight” (1979), which was never produced. Death overshadowed his next two, “The Day Room” (1986) and “Valparaiso” (1999), but it was an abstraction, an idea—in the new play, it is real, and painfully so.
“I suppose this is a play about the modern meaning of life’s end,” he says. “When does it end? How does it end? How should it end? What is the value of life? How do we measure it?”
“Just yesterday, I remembered that in one of my earlier novels, I think it’s in ‘Great Jones Street,’ if I didn’t edit it out, there’s a reference to patients in British hospitals being assigned to beds that are marked NTBR: Not to be resuscitated.
“When I learned this, back in the early 1970s, I thought it sounded like the bleakest landscape out of some futuristic novel.” And of course now it is enormously widespread, the idea of people not being resuscitated.
DeLillo has never had to make such a decision.
“And if I did,” he adds quickly, “I would probably speak of it only privately.”
Steppenwolf Theater is producing the play (see review), featuring Louis Cancelmi, John Heard, Larry Kucharik and Penelope Walker. Amy Morton directs. DeLillo admits he is already indebted to them.
“The deceptive element is that, well, it’s only dialogue, after all. And much of the work will be done by others eventually. But I think a playwright realizes that after he finishes working on the script, that this is only the beginning. What will happen when it moves into three dimensions? This is the test and the surprise.”
This spring, a script DeLillo wrote 15 years ago has finally given birth to a film, “Game 6,” which is running in Boston. It features Michael Keaton as a playwright on a journey across town to confront a critic he worries will ravage his new play on opening night. The film’s drama unfolds before the backdrop of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, when the New York Mets beat the Boston Red Sox in the tenth inning when a routine ground ball went through the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.
“So here I am with a play coming out, and a movie about this situation,” says DeLillo. As soon as the talk shifts to baseball, he grows more comfortable.
“My baseball memory goes back a long way,” he says, almost wistful. A longtime New York Yankees fan, he has grown disillusioned with the club’s massive player payroll.
As serious as DeLillo is about baseball, he will not make exceptions for it these days. He attends just one game a year and does not watch it much on TV.
“I watch movies,” DeLillo says. “And I watch documentaries. Virtually nothing else. I can’t, you see, deal with commercials, for one thing, and when I watch sports, there are commercials. Often I will watch the game without sound at all. I’ve always got a magazine or a newspaper.”
And with that, DeLillo slowly backs out of the conversation, stops revealing himself piece by piece, until it’s hard to say what, exactly, we are talking about. Or how we got there.
By the time his publicist comes to retrieve him, DeLillo jokes that we didn’t really have an interview but simply played cards for 45 minutes.
So persuasively has he disappeared that when I get home, I expect my tape recorder to be blank. Somehow, I think he wins every hand he plays.