As this series approaches the present, the process of making a final selection from great contemporary fiction becomes progressively more contentious. In the impossible choice between Thomas Pynchon, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Joan Didion, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje, Robert Stone and Paul Auster, I have opted for DeLillo’s 11th novel.

Underworld is the work of a writer wired into contemporary America from the ground up, spookily attuned to the weird vibrations of popular culture and the buzz of everyday, ordinary conversations on bus and subway. According to Joyce Carol Oates, he is “a man of frightening perception”, an all-American writer who sees and hears his country like no other. This ambitious, massive (832pp) and visionary edifice certainly looks like a masterpiece; widely acclaimed by critics on first appearance, it is often chosen by lists like this.

From its first appearance in October 1997, a moment I remember well as the Observer’s literary editor, Underworld was spoken of as a towering performance and hailed as that elusive literary hippogriff, the great American novel. In his review, the novelist William Boyd wrote, “In Underworld, we have a mature and hugely accomplished novelist firing on all cylinders… reading the book is a charged and thrilling aesthetic experience and one remembers gratefully that this is what the novel can do.” The Observer also described it as “an epic to set alongside Moby-Dick and Augie March” (Nos 17 and 73 in this series). Such ideas were possibly reinforced by DeLillo’s quotable opening line: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”

Underworld opens on 3 October 1951 with one of the most famous baseball games ever played, the Brooklyn Dodgers versus the New York Giants, in which Bobby Thomson made the Shot Heard Round the World, hitting the ball deep into the crowd. This brilliant opening, juxtaposed with the first atomic detonation made by the Soviet Union on the far side of the world, launches a cold war narrative with the sub-theme of late-20th century American subconscious, a longstanding DeLillo preoccupation.

From this numinous date in US popular culture, DeLillo marches with growing confidence through the second half of the 20th century, loosely following the fate of the missing baseball. Underworld’s narrative is not sequential and, after the 1951 prologue, tracks through some key moments of recent American history, notably Vietnam and the Cuban missile crisis, and also through the life of DeLillo’s protagonist, Nick Shay, a waste-management officer, and his faithless wife Marian. Historical figures such as Lenny Bruce, J Edgar Hoover and Frank Sinatra make cameo appearances. As well as the elusive baseball, Underworld’s recurrent theme, and narrative hook, is Nick’s struggle with memories of a juvenile crime whose full story, with Oedipal overtones, is revealed towards the end of an epic journey through the American hinterland.

A note on the text

DeLillo has devoted a life of writing to the shadow side of American life, painting a dysfunctional freaks’ gallery of the wrecked (David Bell in Americana), the sick (Bill Gray in Mao II), the mad (Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra) and the suicidal (Eric Packer in Cosmopolis). In White Noise, the protagonist, Jack, who teaches Hitler studies, riffs hilariously on death and mass murder. It is said that DeLillo used to keep two files on his writing table, labelled “Art” and “Terror”. Through his lifelong explorations of the American psyche, DeLillo has become credited with extraordinary powers of literary clairvoyance. The war on terror is said to be foreshadowed in Mao II. The planes that flew into the twin towers are possibly alluded to on the cover of Underworld. Parts of White Noise are echoed in the anthrax scare of 2001, and so on.

In his Paris Review interview with DeLillo, Adam Begley prefaces the conversation with a vivid note that conjures the experience of meeting DeLillo. Begley writes: “A man who’s been called ‘the chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction’ can be expected to act a little nervous. I met Don DeLillo for the first time in an Irish restaurant in Manhattan, for a conversation he said would be ‘deeply preliminary’. He is a slender man, grey-haired, with boxy brown glasses. His eyes, magnified by thick lenses, are restless without being shifty. He looks to the right, to the left; he turns his head to see what’s behind him.”

DeLillo says that Underworld was inspired by the front page of the New York Times, 4 October 1951. He also told the Paris Review: “Sometime in late 1991, I started writing something new and didn’t know what it would be – a novel, a short story, a long story. It was simply a piece of writing, and it gave me more pleasure than any other writing I’ve done. It turned into a novella, Pafko at the Wall, and it appeared in Harper’s about a year after I started it. At some point I decided I wasn’t finished with the piece. I was sending signals into space and getting echoes back, like a dolphin or a bat. So the piece, slightly altered, is now the prologue to a novel-in-progress, which will have a different title. [This became the opening chapter of Underworld.] And the pleasure has long since faded into the slogging reality of the no man’s land of the long novel. But I’m still hearing the echoes.”

Elsewhere, he has spoken of the suggestive connections between Pluto, the god of the classical underworld, and the popular American unconscious. When I interviewed him for the Observer in 2010 about his novella Point Omega, he described his creative methods: “I’m always keeping random notes on scraps of paper. I always carry a pencil and a notebook. Coming on the train today I had an idea for a story I’m writing and jotted it down – on just a little scrap of paper. Then I clip these together. I’ll look at them in, say, three weeks’ time, and see what I’ve got. You know, I’ve never made an outline for any novel that I’ve written. Never.”

This is an approach that possibly sponsors the teeming structure of a novel like Underworld, but the upshot can be stunning. From a variety of reviews, Martin Amis (in Esquire) hailed “the ascension of a great writer”; Malcolm Bradbury (in the Times) spoke of “something to take home for the millennium”; Blake Morrison (in the Independent) declared that “DeLillo ranks with the best of contemporary American novelists”; and Fintan O’Toole (in the Irish Times) acclaimed “one of the defining novels of the postwar period”. Finally, that fearsome American critic, Harold Bloom, identified Underworld as “the culmination of what DeLillo can do”, a novel that “touched what I would call the sublime”.

Three more from Don DeLillo

White Noise (1985); Libra (1988); Mao II (1991).

Underworld is published by Picador (£12.99). Click here to order it for £10.39