October 13, 1997 12:00 PM

by Don DeLillo

Nobody expected Picasso to paint nice representational pictures of guitar players. Nobody expected Charlie Parker to play nice literal renditions of “Melancholy Baby.” And by now nobody should expect DeLillo to turn out nice linear novels. Just as well.

This sprawling, looping, difficult but engrossing 827-page novel jumps back and forth in time and space, leaping from 1951 New York in one paragraph to 1997 New Mexico in the next. There are flashbacks, flashforwards, non sequiturs and sentences that begin on one page and conclude 10 pages later. The novel’s subjects include Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run and the first Soviet A-bomb test (which took place on the same day in 1951), a pompous subway graffiti artist, J. Edgar Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson, a killer in Texas, the Zapruder film, waste disposal, a chess prodigy, Lenny Bruce and the Cuban missile crisis, among other things. DeLillo’s stunning achievement is holding all his plots, subplots and superplots together so that those 827 pages cohere as an impressionistic whole, greater and more telling than its individual parts.

Meanwhile he is evoking most of the major issues of the last 50 years and implying relationships among them without being explicit. He not only trusts readers to work that out themselves, he challenges readers to take that step. A man obsessed with finding the ball Thomson hit, for example, meticulously studies newspaper photographs of the ball landing in the stands, down to the engravings’ dots, hoping to find a clue to its whereabouts. Consider this book to be a thinking person’s Where’s Waldo, sometimes idle but always amusing. (Scribner, $27.50)

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