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[441] Netherland – Joseph O’Neill

” The decisive item, if I’m going to be honest about this, was that Chuck was making a go of things. The sushi, the mistress, the marriage, the real estate dealings, and, almost inconceivably, Bald Eagle Field: it was all happening in front of my eyes. While the country floundered in Iraq, Chuck was running. ” (163)

Just after 9/11 attack, when the country is obsessed with finding life’s meaning and shunning the visceral disease of self-entitlement, Hans van den Broek—a banker originally from the Netherlands, unmoored in his own life, finds himself marooned among the strange and furtive occupants of Chelsea Hotel after his English life, freaked out about safety, moves back to London with their son.

Out of loneliness and boredom, Hans takes up an old sport as a consolation. He stumbles upon the vibrant subculture of New York through cricket, a sport practiced by minorities, the “strange looking guys,” (6) black and brown men that “nobody notices.” (16) In charming and charismatic Chuck Ramkissoon, a strong-willed Trinidadian who has ambitious schemes to bring cricket to the forefront of American consciousness. On a pier slated for redevelopment he proposes to open a cricket club.

If he saw an opportunity to act with suddenness or take you by surprise or push you into the dark, he’d take it, almost as a matter of principle. He was a willful, clandestine man who followed his own instincts and analyses and would rarely be influenced by advice— (71)

Chuck has become more than a friend; he is an inspiration by his ability to hold fast to a sense of American (dream) and human possibility in which Hans has come to lose faith. In a funny but frustrating, truer-than-life experience at DMV, he is “seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, [his] gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers.” (68) (My exact sentiment.) Between Chuck and Hans, O’Neill, somewhat mockingly, shows the absurdity and fading promise of 21st century America from an outsider’s vantage point. The problem is more than just monetary, but rather a moral ambiguity, rooted in religion, that has the effect of exempting the United States from the very rules of civilized and lawful and rational behavior it so mercilessly seeks to enforce on others. This I give O’Neill the credit, but unfortunately this is the only bright moment of the book with an overal uneven pace and desultory, capricious plot.

I’ve heard it said that the indiscriminate nature of the attack transformed all of us on that island into victims of attempted murder, but I’m not all the sure that geographic proximity to the catastrophe confers this status on me or anybody else. (182)

Netherland uses American cricket to explore the larger theme of immigration: what compromises and sacrifices are made on the part of immigrants. Unfortunately, the book is too small-boned, despite a big ambition, lacking a central magnet that holds the disjointed, incohesive story intact. Even the Gatsby-like (media and critics claim, not O’Neill’s fault) character, Chuck Ramkissoon, comes across as inspid, one-dimensional, and banal. Not only is he a far cry from Fitzgerald’s complex, multi-layered characterization of Jay Gatsby, Chuck’s story also fades to an ambiguous, tragic end. O’Neill prose is also hit-or-miss, going between stunningly beautiful, unnecessarily complicated (overwritten), and downright tiresome. This book belongs to the type that readers have to read for themselves. It’s worth a read but definitely not a great American novel.

256 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

6 Responses

  1. what a relief. I couldn’t finish it and felt bad about that.

  2. Awesome- so glad you did a review of this. A very bold attempt to intertwine a post-911 sense of impermanence/confusion with the classic nature of cricket, within an American setting. Being an American who is bizarrely attracted to cricket I thought this novel would be a perfect fit. But your assessment is spot on, and O’neill’s writing has too many holes in it for me to recommend this to non- cricket loving readers.

    • Some parts of the novel, unfortunately, read like drafts. Certain elements of the plot do not connect and they have lots of holes. I think he’s trying to portray the melting pot that is America and shows the other sides of the big apple through crickets and its players.

  3. Thanks for reviewing this one and for being so honest – and agreeing with me 😉 I am in the middle of reading it and I am finding it quite difficult going simply because I find Ramkisson a rather annoying and uninteresting character. The narrator I like but I could have done without Chuck. Actually I think this has the beginnings of a really good story but the author focuses somehow mostly on what themes that just weren’t interesting.

    • My sentiment is the same. The book has great potential. The opening instantly captures me except it only goes downhill from there. He’s spot on about the changing values of America and how moral ambiguity has triggered the country’s downfall. But the overall feeling that I have of the book is one of desultory and capricious plot.

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