"For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis... There are obligations attached to such a visit."
-- Don DeLillo, opening page of The Names
The Names is the fourth work of fiction by American great Don DeLillo. It tells the story of expatriate American James Axton and his work in Greece working for a large "father" firm which offers political insurance to companies operating in volatile regions such as the Middle East. Axton is following his recently separated wife Kathryn, a woman with whom he is still very much in love with, and their 6 year old novel writing son Tap. The bulk of The Names revolves around the involvement of Axton with his barely separated wife and son, and through them two other characters of note on the Agean island where they live: Owen Brademas, the moody archaeologist leading the dig where Kathryn works, and Frank Volterra, a failed avant-garde filmmaker.
It is with these two last men, these two substitute fathers for Tap, that Axton begins a relationship with because of some disturbing local news. Early on in the novel it is revealed that there is a local cult is killing people who arrive at locations whose initials are the same as their name. The mens' interest reaches a fevered pitch as they try to discover the "what" and "why" of the cult and in turn reveal the "why" of their own obsession.
The Names investigates relationships between people. The Names investigates the core of languages and how we communicate. The Names is genuinely brilliant.
Starting with page one, with the protagonist's beautiful narration of his hesitance to visit Greece's Acropolis, The Names sucks you in. With a comfortable and languid pace, and a collection of sentences far looser than the great word economist DeLillo is in habit of using, The Names swells and builds on itself, suddenly jerking you to a stop with a deliberate misuse of punctuation, or a breathtaking description of a single moment of time. About halfway through reading the novel you start asking yourself questions: How have I never noticed that before? How have I not discovered this author before? Why haven't my book friends told me about this wonderfully strange work?
Are all of DeLillo's novels this good?
Best known for his efforts of White Noise, Libra, Underworld, The Body Artist, and most recently Cosmopolis, all of DeLillo's novels are good; The Names is exceptional. Mixing a sensuous blend of thrill-genre writing with his own quiet wit and startling clear observations, The Names is a terrific success. Contemplative and inquisitive, the novel has an air of ambition which begs you to read on. If not DeLillo's best novel, it is certainly one of his most enjoyable to read. The Names is a perfect novel for the reader who appreciated intrigue and questioning in a storyline.
The Names was first published in 1982 under Random House. Its ISBN is 0-679-72295-5 and the paperback edition is 339 pages.