October 2008

Arts & Letters

‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill

By Patrick Allington

With this sweeping tale of contemporary New York, Joseph O'Neill - Irish-born, raised in the Netherlands and now living in the US - has ridden a wave of critical praise onto the Man Booker long-list. O'Neill's self-absorbed first-person narration contains echoes of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, yet it is hard to fathom the hype generated by this uneven novel. Netherland is simultaneously fun and deadly serious; it has moments to savour and, occasionally, to marvel at. But it is ultimately a partial and periodic success.

Hans van den Broek is a Dutch equities analyst who stays on in New York after his English wife, Rachel, and their son return to London. Lonely and dispirited, he gravitates to Sunday cricket matches that are held, almost unnoticed, throughout the city. He shares the field with immigrants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Caribbean: "I was the only white man I saw." One day Hans meets Chuck Ramkissoon, an expat Trinidadian who (as we quickly learn) will end up dead in a canal. A loquacious entrepreneur, Chuck has grand plans for cricket in America.

Netherland ponders often - but unremarkably - the intricacies and mysterious allure of the sport. It's as if O'Neill is leaning for support on the mantra ‘cricket's a funny game' - too funny for America. Still, there are insights into the migrant experience and the American Dream. And at times the prose possesses a melancholy beauty, most notably when Hans tries to make sense of his bloodless relationship with Rachel. Elsewhere, various characters and events - Rachel, September 11, the Iraq war, the wacky inhabitants of the Chelsea Hotel where Hans lives, and his cricket-infused childhood - seem like props for Hans to self-consciously bump into and then mull over. He is an unendearing and limp dreamer, although his capacity for self-reflection does allow O'Neill to offer an outsider's appraisal, sharp but awed, of modern America.

The best thing about the book is Chuck Ramkissoon, dodgy yet likeable and full of self-justifying stories and moneymaking schemes: "his modus operandi: wrong-foot the world." Chuck's odd, unsettling friendship with Hans and his wonderfully ludicrous belief that cricket will conquer the US carry Netherland through its weaker stretches.

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