A new world
Outlegged by news networks that never sleep, outsold by the juggernaut of visual entertainment, the novel doesn’t bring us the news as it once did. Or it’s easy to think so, until you read a book like Joseph O’Neill’s splendid Netherland.
This wholly unexpected novel turns the city once known as Nueve Amsterdam inside out with the tale of a Dutch banker clinging to his crumbling marriage and family in the aftermath of September 11. It is a fabulous, deeply enjoyable New York story about the fantasies that prop up daily reality—in other words, a deeply New York novel about that deeply New York penchant for new beginnings.
The man we’re rooting for (and it’s impossible not to cheer him on) is Hans van den Broek, a 6-foot-5-inch, 40-something equity analyst. He spends a good deal of the novel holed up at the Chelsea Hotel, a bohemian landmark where Arthur Miller wrote some of his best known work and that Andy Warhol once called home. Something essential has jostled free from Hans’ marriage, sending his ex-pat wife back to England with their son, Jake. Hans stays behind and pours his restless, misbegotten self into a cricket league out on Staten Island, where he meets and befriends a Trinidadian entrepreneur of sorts, Chuck Ramkissoon. It is Chuck’s dream to build a world-class cricket arena—he doesn’t like the word stadium—in Brooklyn.
This unlikely plot provides more than enough power for this book, for it allows O’Neill to do what he does best: riff, observe and ruminate, through Hans’ eyes, on life in New York. No writer since Paul Auster has captured the mystery of the city so well: the skuzzy diners and bumbling eccentrics, the mythology of self-renewal, the pockets of populations so hastily mashed together. Hans, as O’Neill has created him, is a perfect guide. He is lonely but curious, old enough to be skeptical, desperate enough to allow himself the aperture of optimism, even after witnessing (or at least rubbernecking at) the spectacle which was September 11. As a Dutchman, he is always on the outside, which in New York, puts him right at the center.
O’Neill seems to have intuitively understood this odd bit of cosmology in writing his remarkable book, for cricket, as it turns out, is also a perfect metaphor for how to become an American. That’s what Chuck and Hans and all the Guyanese, Pakistani, Indian and West Indian men are doing out on Staten Island in the most nonchalant way: meshing together old traditions in a place that’s always new. But they’re also just playing a game, forgetting themselves. It’s a fine balance; one New Yorkers had to relearn after 9/11. O’Neill has stuffed Netherland full of echoes of that day, but ultimately, Netherland transcends it. There are sentences so beautiful they lodge in the reader’s mind and remind us of the inimitable pleasure of encountering the world through its shapely reflection in a book—even if what that book shows us is far too rundown to be glamorous anymore.