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Pafko at the Wall

At the precipice of the 20th century: Jennifer Egan and Rowan Ricardo Phillips discuss Don DeLillo’s prologue to Underworld

“Sometime in late 1991,” Don DeLillo told a Paris Review interviewer in 1993, “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.” The result was the novella “Pafko at the Wall,” first published as a Folio in the October 1992 issue of Harper’s Magazine, making up a third of the issue’s length. “Wherein the Giants clinch the pennant, Bruegel descends, a bomb explodes, Sinatra sulks, and a Harlem boy plays his own game,” read that month’s cover. A slightly revised version would later become the prologue to Underworld, a novel often described as DeLillo’s masterpiece.

The story takes place during the National League playoff game of October 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants hit a pennant-winning home run over the head of Brooklyn Dodgers left fielder Andy Pafko—an event known to baseball fans as the “Shot Heard ’Round the World.” Here, though, the famous game serves mostly as background, its action serving to repeatedly bounce the reader’s attention back into the stands. DeLillo, a writer who has always been fascinated by the mechanics of spectacle, wants us to watch the watchers—some of whom, such as Frank Sinatra, the radio announcer Russ Hodges, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, are spectacle makers (and manipulators) themselves. Hovering over the proceedings, meanwhile, are suggestions of darker energy: the secret knowledge, possessed by only the paranoid Hoover, that the Soviets have just performed a successful nuclear-weapons test, and racial tensions, briefly transcended by fandom, that are unloosed in the scramble over a suddenly famous ball.

In this episode of the podcast, we bring you excerpts of “Pafko at the Wall,” which was performed live at the 92nd Street Y by Billy Crudup, Zachary Levi, and Tony Shalhoub, interspersed with commentary by the novelist Jennifer Egan and the poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips. The full recording of the performance will be released on March 30 by Simon & Schuster Audio. A video of the performance will be available for two days at beginning on Sunday, March 28, in anticipation of the audiobook’s release.

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