The 2010 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction will go to Don DeLillo. 

The PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction goes to a distinguished living American author of fiction whose body of work in English possesses qualities of excellence, ambition, and scale of achievement over a sustained career which place him or her in the highest rank of American literature. The award carries a stipend of $25,000.

2010 Judges

Joan Acocella, Philip Roth, and Nathan Englander

From the Judges’ Citation

“It is fitting that an award established in honor of Saul Bellow should be given to Don DeLillo. Bellow was old enough to be DeLillo’s father, but literary material doesn’t go away so fast. Both men were historical novelists who, in their most ambitious works, dealt with American life the mid- to late twentieth century, after World War II, and with the dark knowledge we acquired therein. 

In DeLillo, though, because of his later place in time—he was born in 1936—the knowledge is graver, and crazier. Two forces loom over his book Underworld, the H-bomb and garbage. This seems a comical pairing, but the garbage is actually as threatening as the bomb. Much of it is nuclear waste, which, in one amazing chapter, an American waste management company pays the post-Soviet Russians to eliminate. The Americans pack the trash into airplanes and fly it to Kazakhstan; the Kazakhstanis bury it in a mountain and blow it up—nuclear waste destroyed by nuclear bombs. (This costs up to twelve hundred dollars per kilo of garbage.) Toxic detritus also figures prominently in White Noise. And of course there is an important explosion in Libra.

That’s a lot of what DeLillo thinks of our way of life—that it is expensive, dangerous, and very strange. The strangeness creeps intoUnderworld gradually. First we get regular realism: the stoop culture of the South Bronx in the fifties, when it was a Catholic working-class neighborhood, with hopscotch and veal chops and widowed old women. We see Sister Alma Edgar, who teaches sixth grade and smells of carbolic soap. Soon the socioeconomic level rises and we watch J. Edgar Hoover in his bathrobe, getting ready to go to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at the Plaza in 1966. 

But then comes the non-realism, the hallucination conjured in DeLillo’s brain by our recent history, and the astonishing linguistic performance that this unleashes. After Sister Edgar dies, at the end of the book, she seems to be on her way to heaven, but she gets caught in the Internet, where she is watched by a teenager sitting in front of his personal computer in Phoenix. As he goes from link to link, dragging the nun with him, he hits the home page for the H-bomb, and Sister Edgar witnesses the explosion:

She stands in the flash and feels the power. She sees the spray plume. She sees the fireball climbing, the superheated sphere of burning gas that can blind a person with its beauty, its dripping christblood colors, solar golds and reds.… The mushroom cloud spreads around her, the pulverized mass of radioactive debris, eight miles high, ten miles, twenty, with skirted stem and smoking platinum cap.

The jewels roll out of her eyes and she sees God.

No, wait, sorry. It is a Soviet bomb she sees, the largest yield in history, a device exploded above the Atlantic Ocean in 1961, preserved in the computer that helped build it.

It is for that combination of terror and comedy and sheer song that everyone wants to give Don DeLillo an award. Tonight it’s our turn.”