Don DeLillo is chiefly known by his big novels of public life and the polluted underground streams that contaminate it. “Libra’’ deals with the Kennedy assassination and the conspiracy theories that swirl around it; “Mao II,’’ with a recluse writer dragged out into the world of terrorism; “White Noise,’’ shorter but more lustrous, with the era of nuclear menace. The great extended jangle of “Underworld’’ conflates the raffish intimacies of New York City with the world-corrupting specters that hang over them.
Now, with the publication of nine short stories that have appeared, largely unremarked, over the past 35 years, another facet of DeLillo is revealed. They gleam among the remarkable but often ponderous bigger works; they are larks flying among powerful birds of prey.
The earliest, “Creation,’’ has not yet taken on DeLillo’s familiar preoccupations; it more resembles what used to be a New Yorker-like bent for intimate emotional transactions. A couple is stranded in a succession of airline wait lists at the end of a Caribbean holiday. By his diligent efforts to arrange matters, by her seeming indifference, we sense their unraveling attachment. Not unfamiliar but subtly, ingeniously rendered.
“Human Moments in World III’’ has two astronauts in a space mission to gather intelligence and destroy enemy space craft. It is not about fighting; it is about the narrator’s cocoon-like comfort in the spacecraft’s daily chores while refusing to think about the questions of why they are there. He has surrendered his wider human impulses to the security of being an obedient cog in a machine; when his partner insists on talking about larger things he feels his privacy breached. At the end humanity breaks in: Through an Einsteinian time bend the cockpit is suddenly invaded by sentimental radio ballads of 50 years earlier.
In “The Ivory Acrobat,’’ an earthquake crumbles the fragile stability of a young American teacher working in Greece. Along with the rest of the populace she seeks refuge in the street. When she returns home at night, an aftershock finds her expecting “the room to fold over her.’’ Waiting for the next tremor “[t]he pitiless thing was time, threat of advancing time.’’ A fellow teacher gives her a tiny Minoan sculpture of a young girl somersaulting over a bull; suddenly she finds her courage. The world is an earthquake: All we can do is hazard our grace and jump the bull’s horns.
The magnificent title story is set in the broken wasteland of the South Bronx, where Ismael is the chief of a gang of graffiti artists, as well as the neighborhood enforcer. When a child dies or is killed the artists paint them as angels (part of this story became a section of “Underworld’’). The main figures are two nuns who work in the slum, and cooperate with Ismael: Gracie, young and up to date, and the obdurately old-fashioned Sister Edgar.
Edgar is the heart of the story. At dawn, dressing painfully, “[s]he knelt in the folds of the white nightgown, fabric endlessly laundered, beaten with swirled soap, left gristled and stiff. And the body beneath, the spindly thing she carried through the world, chalk pale mostly, and speckled hands with high veins.’’ Teaching, she had been a terror, swatting heads with her massive rosary. But now that the neighborhood was no longer Italian but Latino, she has stopped. “How could she strike a child who was not like her?’’
The world has changed; the church has changed; she still wears the habit while the younger nuns wear civvies. “Things were simpler then. Clothing was layered, life was not.’’ Overwhelmed, appalled, scared as she accompanies the fearless Gracie, she is a tormented portrait of a religious, worthy of Georges Bernanos or Graham Greene.
Two of the stories, written in the last year or two, outshine some of DeLillo’s recent short novels. “Hammer and Sickle,’’ part surreal, part satiric, and thoroughly diverting, tells of life in a luxury prison for billionaire malefactors. In the evenings they watch a news program anchored by two little girls; as the story proceeds they are subjected to scenes of radical rioters cheering Stalin, Mao, and Fidel Castro.
“Midnight in Dostoevsky’’ is a triumph, with its searching reflectiveness and rare gaiety. The narrator and his buddy Todd, two students at an upstate New York college - how well DeLillo renders its scruffy winter bleakness - play a nonstop game of making up stories about the townspeople they pass. They are elaborate, detailed, and told with a superficial jokiness that conceals a darker need for a made-up world more manageable than the real one.
An elderly man provokes an hourlong debate: Is he wearing a parka or an anorak? Argument is essential “to reconstruct [the world] as human noise.’’ At the same time, the two attend a logic class given by Professor Ilgauskas, shabby and eccentric. He will trail off partway through a lecture, seemingly “another drained voice echoing down the tunnel of teaching years.’’ He is a mystery to the two fabulists, even after another student reports his passion for Dostoevsky.
They incorporate Ilgauskas into their inventions; perhaps the elderly passerby is the professor’s father. The storifying becomes more and more elaborate and far-fetched. DeLillo gives us unbelted comedy - for a while. Then Todd, tired of the inventing, tries to question the old man. The narrator grabs him; they fight; Todd flees. He has breached the protective covenant that kept the world at a distance, and safe.
Free of the big missions of the big novels - though not entirely of their significance - the pieces in “The Angel Esmeralda’’ shine of their own light. They embody, perhaps, the poet Archibald MacLeish’s preachment (one he never quite managed to practice) that a poem should not mean, but be. Most of these stories quite wonderfully are.
Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.