Study Guide

White Noise Chapter 21

By Don DeLillo

Chapter 21

  • This chapter kicks off the second part of the book, which is titled "The Airborne Toxic Event."
  • Jack is walking around his house when he realizes that Heinrich is standing out on the roof with a pair of binoculars held to his eyes. Jack doesn't think it's safe on the icy roof. But Babette tells him not to smother Heinrich with his worrying.
  • When Jack gets upstairs, Heinrich is already back inside. Jack asks what's up, and Heinrich tells him that there's some sort of wreck in the nearby train yard. There's a bunch of smoke coming out of one of the train cars. The fire trucks aren't getting very close to the scene, which means the stuff coming out of the train car must be toxic or explosive.
  • An hour later, Heinrich tells him that the radio is calling the smoke in the sky "a feathery plume" (21.30). But Heinrich doesn't agree with this description. It also turns out that the chemical that's gotten into the air is called Nyodene D. It's been known to cause tumors in rats.
  • Jack guarantees Heinrich that the cloud won't come their way. But Heinrich isn't so sure.
  • Meanwhile, the radio has stopped calling the smoke a "feathery plume" and changed its name to a "black billowing cloud" (21.108).
  • Jack says that everything's going to be fine. Disasters are things that happen to poor people living in trailer homes, not good ol' middle class folks like him and his family. A little arrogant, don't you think?
  • Eventually, a truck drives down their street and announces that everyone in the neighborhood needs to leave their homes and leave the town.
  • The radio changes its mind again about what to call the smoke. Now it's calling the giant cloud an "airborne toxic event" and it says that a sense of déja vu is one of the symptoms of exposure.
  • Jack's family piles into the car and joins a huge line of traffic heading out of town. As they drive away, Jack glimpses Babette sneaking something into her mouth. He wants to know what it is, but she swallows it and tells him it's just a Lifesaver. He doesn't believe her.
  • Suddenly, Steffie has a moment of déja vu. No one can tell if it's real or if Steffie is imagining it.
  • Much to his chagrin, Jack realizes that they're running out of gas. He pulls into a gas station and gets out of the car to pump. Just so you know, he'll end up regretting this.
  • The meeting place for evacuees is an old Boy Scout camp on the outside of town. A bunch of men in plastic Mylex suits are directing people where to park their cars.
  • There are small crowds collecting around certain people who say they know what's really going on with the airborne toxic event. People throw out a ton of conspiracy theories. Heinrich quickly steps up and fills this role, gathering an impressive crowd around himself. Jack is proud of seeing Heinrich in his element. But he doesn't want to go stand with the crowd out of fear of cramping Heinrich's style.
  • Jack then gets into a conversation with a Jehovah's Witness who says that the airborne toxic event is clearly something sent by God. People think they're in control of the world, the man says, but it's God who decides everything in the end.
  • When Jack returns to his family, Denise gives him a hard-eyed look and tells him to get himself checked out. He probably exposed himself to Nyodene D. when he got out of the car to pump gas on the way out of town.
  • Jack steps into a line and waits to speak to a man wearing an armband with the word SIMUVAC on it. The man tells Jack that he's probably had several minutes of exposure to the gas.
  • Jack asks what the man's armband means. The man tells him that it's short for Simulated Evacuation, which is kind of like a fire drill, except for an entire town instead of a building.
  • The man punches a bunch of Jack's personal information into a computer. He gets a reading and tells Jack that he'd rather not know what it says. Basically, the truth is that Jack has the chemical inside him and it's going to kill him. The weird part is that the stuff can take up to thirty years to kill someone, and Jack is already over fifty. Now Jack has to start worrying about whether he can die of natural causes before the chemicals can kill him.
  • He goes back to Babette, who's reading stories from a supermarket tabloid. After listening to the stories for a while, Jack runs into Murray Siskind. Murray is haggling with a van full of prostitutes because he wants to perform the Heimlich maneuver on one of them. Yes, you read that right. The Heimlich maneuver. Murray explains to Jack that he's not looking for a sexual thrill. He just wants to feel like a hero by pretending to save a woman's life.
  • It's nine full days before Jack and his family are allowed to go back home. 

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