Over a 50-year literary career, Don DeLillo has published 16 novels, but never a short-story collection. His most successful short work is the novella “Pafko At The Wall,” which was retitled “The Triumph Of Death” when it became the prologue to DeLillo’s mammoth novel Underworld. Culled from DeLillo’s 20 or so short stories over the course of a 50-year career, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories isn’t a comprehensive anthology of his short material, nor a coherent collection of stories written around the same time. Instead, it reads like an incomplete amalgam of B-sides and rarities, occasionally enlightening, but never fully formed.
No one ever accused DeLillo of lacking ambition, but the only bits of his characteristic scope come out in the diversity of the material. The settings range from the Caribbean in the ’70s to space during a hypothetical World War III to Athens after an earthquake to a white-collar prison. The stories progress chronologically, divided into three sections, though their lack of thematic similarity makes the choice insignificant.
A few of the longer stories do pack a punch. “Midnight In Dostoevsky” wrings drama out of the mundane setting of a wintery college campus with a pair of bickering pseudo-intellectuals. The two pretentious, naïve college freshmen argue at great length over things of little consequence, like whether a man they continually see out walking is wearing a parka or an anorak. They’re deliberately outlandish and anal-retentive, but they continue to imagine the backstory of that man, spinning a yarn that imagines the old man to be a Russian immigrant, and the father of their logic professor. The story is the kind of whimsical, imaginative, tenuously connected tale DeLillo balances expertly in his best novels. Unfortunately, it’s the only story in the collection that lives up to his usual standard for complication and scope, as several of the others—“The Runner” and “The Starveling” in particular—are rough, strong, but unfocused sketches.
“Baader-Meinhof” begins with a woman observing Gerhard Richter’s 15-painting cycle, October 18, 1977, about the Red Army Faction leaders. She meets a strange man in the art gallery, then has an awkwardly aborted romantic encounter. DeLillo describes the paintings and the woman’s fascination with them forcefully, but the move with the job-seeker is hopelessly incomplete. The story glosses over the purpose behind the Richter paintings and the complicated subject of the RAF, and it feels like an abandoned excerpt from a larger work.
The white-collar criminal protagonist of 2010’s “Hammer And Sickle” watches television in morbid fascination as his two preteen daughters appear as child financial analysts on a news program in segments scripted by the man’s ex-wife. They make insubstantial rants on crises in Dubai—better examined by George Saunders in his non-fiction collection The Braindead Megaphone—and Greece’s contributions to the potential meltdown of the European economy.
Ultimately, this random smattering of DeLillo’s short stories addresses the development of media oversaturation and societal paranoia over the past decades, but those fears are better explored in White Noise or Falling Man. In a body of work made up of home-run swings that occasionally miss, The Angel Esmeralda amounts to a few solid hits, but mostly just a bunch of foul tips.