Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 06 Dec 2018

Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo

I came to this novel in a round-about way; I saw it listed on a ‘ten-best novels about rock music’ list and, because I’d not heard of it before, I did some follow-up. This is DeLillo’s third novel, published in 1973, and I was intrigued and tempted by the fact that the book seems to divide critical opinion with some calling it brilliant and others equally certain that it’s a failure. I love a bit of critical disagreement and that alone might have confirmed my interest but add to that the fact that there’s a substantial rumour that the central character, Bucky Wunderlick, is loosely modelled on Bob Dylan and the deal was done.

I’ll tell you right up front that I haven’t really made up my mind about the novel – some elements seem to work well while others leave me thinking that the artifice pushed my willingness to suspend disbelief a touch too far. For a novel in which not a lot happens, there’s a lot going on. We join the story as Bucky, at the peak of his and his band’s fame, decides he’s had enough of his stardom and heads off to hide-out with his girlfriend, Opel, in a scuzzy flat on Great Jones Street. Above him in the building is a writer who he sort of makes contact with but who is himself in the process of some sort of breakdown or is trapped in delusions about what he’s trying to achieve.

Meanwhile the outside world swirls with rumour about where Bucky has disappeared to and increasingly absurdist sightings of him in the most unlikely places fill the news. Far from disappearing though Bucky is sort of planning a return to the public performance world but he can’t work out what that should be. Throughout this time he’s being dogged by his manager, a music business poser, and by his former band-mates who see their meal-ticket going down the toilet.

There are two other plots within the plot going on – one which involves the ownership of a certain ‘product’, a potent drug that several syndicates want to get their hands on; and another that relates to some tapes of songs Bucky has recorded and never made public (this latter adding fuel to the Dylan connection because they sound remarkably like the legendary Basement Tapes). Both are contained in similar parcels and the ownership and whereabouts of both become confused and confusing, creating something akin to  a very dark farce.

DeLillo creates an oppressive, gloomy atmosphere, quite at odds with the usual assumptions people might make about the superstar lifestyle and the unkempt, unwashed, semi-squalor of Great Jones Street left me feeling that even this world in the 1970s was dominated by the colour brown.

There’s also a sense that this is an unfeeling, callous world in which Opel can die, seemingly quite suddenly, from simple neglect and misuse of her body and yet such a tragedy never really touches anyone else in the book – even Bucky seems able to shrug it off. Bucky is also a victim – a victim of fame, a victim of other people’s avarice and ambition and a victim of his own making. He will also become a victim of the drugs that everyone is squabbling over.

Although DeLillo gives us some hope at the end of the book as Bucky fights for his recovery and begins writing songs again (his precious tapes have been shredded by this point), the book tips from a satire of the modern rock business into something more akin to an exploration of the existential crisis faced by someone who is owned by everyone other than himself.

DeLillo has done something daring and experimental with this book and that should be applauded but, equally, there are some very questionable decisions he’s made about content. He’s created British characters and provided them with dialogue that has all the authenticity of Daphne’s English relatives in the later Frasier episodes and he also makes the cardinal error of trying to authenticate Bucky’s rock stardom by reproducing some of his lyrics. They’re terrible. Big mistake.

Still, I have a feeling that Great Jones Street and its inhabitants will stay with me for a while and, uncharacteristically, I don’t want to jump to immediate judgements on the enterprise. I think I’ll just sit and let it stew for a bit – and that might be a good reason for you to get hold of a copy and make your own mind up about it.


Terry Potter

December 2018