A dark comedy about an upper-middle class blended family living the technology overloaded, mall-mad contemporary American life in a small midwestern town until catastrophe strikes. Jack Gladney teaches Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. He is married to his fourth wife Babette, who reads tabloids to the blind and teaches posture classes to senior citizens. Together, they have four children, and a quirky extended family.

Interspersed in the noisy, chaotic family relationships is the central questions that obsesses Jack and Babette: who will die first? Death is everywhere in this story--on TV, radio, at the mall, in Hitler studies, and at home. Then an industrial accident releases an "airborne toxic event"--a lethal cloud of Nyodene D. to which Jack is exposed.

Absurd, witty, and almost plausible, the catastrophe answers his question about who will die first, but tells him nothing about death itself. What is the meaning of death, and, by implication, life? In the final section, dying Jack goes to hospital and meets nun Sister Hermann Marie and questions her about her faith. She explains that her piety is only a pretence: . . . "we are here to embody old things, old beliefs. The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things the world would collapse." (p. 318)


According to DeLillo, the novel is "about fear, death, and technology. A comedy, of course." He claimed that he was influenced by Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, and death is the novel’s focus. There are a number of provocative comparisons between the first and final parts of this post-modern American novel and Leo Tolstoy’s 19th century Russian story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (see this database).

For example, Gladney’s reflections on his own middle-class materialism and death while at a shopping mall have resonances with the ironic descriptions of Ilych’s kitsch home decorating. Similarly, Gladney and Ilych describe their encounters with physicians, and detail their own mediations on death, transformations in their respective family dynamics, and raise profound questions about spirituality, religion and the meaning of death.


This novel received the National Book Award (1985).


Viking Critical Edition/Penguin

Place Published

New York New York New York New York




Mark Osteren

Page Count