It's one thing to be a great writer; it's another to be a great Zeitgeist writer, one of those who seem to write with the inner life of the culture in their bones. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were Zeitgeist writers in the '20s; Mailer and Bellow took over the role in the '50s and '60s. Since the mid-'80s, when Pynchon failed to deliver a knockout follow-up to Gravity's Rainbow, it has been all DeLillo. In poetic prose that seems lovingly hewn from granite, DeLillo has taken on the broad social themes—nuclear fear, rock culture, Wall Street, the world of espionage, Middle East terrorism (in two novels, one published two decades before Sept. 11), mass media, consumerism, paranoia—that characterize and define public American culture without sacrificing deep and scorching portrayals of the interior lives of his characters. His influence on younger writers making their impact now—David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody—is palpable; for the rest of us, he's the kind of writer who can permanently alter the way you look at America and that "vestigial mortal inch," as he has put it, that's left after America's done fucking with our souls. He has published 12 novels, two plays and a bucketful of short stories. Here's where you might start:
1. White Noise (1985) The most read, the most fully canonized DeLillo book. It's about everything: the new American family, toxic chemicals, shopping malls, television, the hilarities of academia, and anxiety seeping from every edge of the culture. It's also the funniest, most penetrating book about the fear of death in American literature.
2. Underworld (1997) His magnum opus, a book that takes in just about every major event or movement—from the Internet to the '60s decadence of the Rolling Stones to Lenny Bruce, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the beginnings of the Cold War—of postwar America in its generous magisterial narrative.
3. The Names (1982) For some DeLillo aficionados, this is their favorite. It's his first great book, a chilling book about the logic of terrorism as well as a magnificent meditation on the redemptive qualities of language. Not to mention an uncanny analysis of the most underappreciated theme in DeLillo: modern marriage.
4. Libra (1988) The result of DeLillo's longstanding obsession with the Kennedy assassination, this wise and sober attempt to comprehend the event and its aftermath makes Oliver Stone's movie JFK, released three years later, seem like a filmed temper tantrum.
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5. End Zone (1971) The funniest and best of his early books, it's the story of a college football player obsessed with nuclear war. Also the most pleasurable introduction to deconstruction I know, if you're into that stuff.