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NEW YORKER Stories

Don DeLillo

"Midnight in Dostoevsky"

November 30, 2009

Beginning right with its title, Don DeLillo's story fairly begs to be interpreted: what is it about? What does it mean? Seen plainly, it's about two brainy college boys being brainy in a cold climate. They walk about the small town adjacent to their campus and count boxcars on passing trains.

This was the day we saw the man in the hooded coat. We argued about the coat—loden coat, anorak, parka. It was our routine; we were ever ready to find a matter to contest. This was why the man had been born, to end up in this town wearing that coat. He was well ahead of us and walking slowly, hands clasped behind his back, a smallish figure turning now to enter a residential street and fade from view.

From this point of departure, the boys spin an imagined life for the old man; rather, they spin two lives, never quite agreeing on any of the details. Back at school, the narrator, Robby, takes a class in Logic from a strangely unprepossessing professor by the name of Ilgauskas. Eye contact is made with an elusive girl across the table. Eventually, she and the narrator strike up a conversation. The girl has seen the professor in a cafe; has talked to him. The narrator is inspired by this conversation to conclude that the old man in the hooded coat is Ilgauskas's father.

Todd, Robby's partner in speculation, is not convinced. Of course not! It is the essence of their friendship that they disagree. At the end of the story, however, they disagree about something beyond speculation. Todd wants to talk to the old man. This the narrator is determined to prevent. Nothing less that the purity of the imagination is at stake. The boys come to blows, right there in the street, not two blocks behind the object of their different degrees of curiosity.

The hooded man was about to move out of sight, turning into his street. I watched Todd run, long, slack, bouncy strides. He would have to go faster if he expected to reach the man before he disappeared into the gray frame house, the designated house.

I saw my lost glove lying in the middle of the street. Then Todd running, bareheaded, trying to skirt areas of frozen snow. The scene empty everywhere around him. I couldn’t make sense of it. I felt completely detached. His breath visible, streams of trailing vapor. I wondered what it was that had caused this thing to happen. He only wanted to talk to the man.

And that is that.

You could say... you could say a lot of things. Two things struck me. First, Mr DeLillo has a good ear for the manner of young men's speech today. Second, the story has the look of an allegory of fictional creation.

We agreed on this, Todd and I, and collaborated, in the meantime, on describing his day.

He drinks coffee black, from a small cup, and spoons cereal out of a child’s bowl. His head practically rests in the bowl when he bends to eat. He never looks at a newspaper. He goes back to his room after breakfast, where he sits and thinks. His daughter-in-law comes in and makes the bed, Irina.

It is amusing to look over the boys' shoulders as they replace ignorance with supposition. Is this how Mr DeLillo creates? We can hear the MFA instructor insisting that we get to know everything about our characters, whether or not we use it in our story. The old man spoons cereal out of a child's bowl and drinks from a small cup. To call the thrill of these fillings-in "voyeuristic" seems overwrought, but that is pretty much what the pleasure amounts to. Deliberately working out the way in which a stranger lives is a small but palpable violation of privacy. It is the sort of thing that, presumably, writers are paid to do; it is certainly the sort of thing that brainy college students do almost compulsively. The game is about seeing how thin and far one's paltry knowledge of the actual world can be stretched. 

He said nothing. They meant nothing to him, trees, birds, baseball teams. He knew music, classical to serial, and the history of mathematics, and a hundred other things. I knew trees from summer camp, when I was twelve, and I was pretty sure the trees were maples. Norway was another matter. I could have said red maple or sugar maple, but Norway sounded stronger, more informed.

We both played chess. We both believed in God.

What is the story about? I leave that question to Robby and Todd. It is impossible to take such sweet child's play seriously.

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