And so I was in a state of fuming helplessness when I stepped out into the inverted obscurity of the afternoon. As I stood there, thrown by Herald Square’s flows of pedestrians and the crazed traffic diagonals and the gray, seemingly bottomless gutter pools, I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark. – from Netherland, page 68 –
The protagonist of Joseph O’Neill’s latest novel is Hans, a wealthy banker living in the Chelsea Hotel in post-911 New York City. Rachel, Hans’ conflicted wife, abandons him to return to London with their child and leaves Hans to navigate his way through a city of immigrants, idealists, and whacky characters. It is not long before Hans discovers the little known, yet thriving culture of immigrant men who gather each week to bat and bowl their way through cricket games. One of these men is Chuck Ramkissoon – an immigrant from Trinidad who runs an illegal gambling operation, cheats on his wife with a scrapbooker, and dreams of creating The New York Cricket Club – a venture which he envisions making millions while introducing Americans to a ‘whole new chapter in U.S. history.‘
“I’m saying that people, all people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilized when they’re playing cricket. What’s the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. I really believe this. Everybody who plays the game benefits from it. SoI say, why not Americans?” – from Netherland, page 211 –
Netherland explores the aftermath of 911 through the eyes of America’s immigrants who have come to America in pursuit of their dreams but find a country conflicted in the face of impending war with Iraq.
We were trying to understand, that is, whether we were in a preapocalyptic situation, like the European Jews in the thirties or the last citizens of Pompeii, or whether our situation was merely near-apocalyptic , like that of the Cold War inhabitants of New York, London, Washington, and, for that matter, Moscow. – from Netherland, page 24 –
O’Neill uses Hans and Rachel’s marriage as a metaphor to explore fear, isolation, disaapointment and reconciliation as they separate and then come back together. Family and country are two intertwined themes as Hans tries to understand his own identity within the larger concept of community.
Although O’Neill’s writing is fluid and evokes a New York which most American’s will relate to, I found myself indifferent to Hans and his troubles. I liked the colorful and outgoing Chuck, but his ultimate fate left me thinking “so what?” I am not exactly sure why the character development left me cold in this novel – O’Neill certainly gives the reader plenty of background and insight into the two main characters – but, ultimately, I found them forgettable. There are also long passages about the game of cricket – a sport which I know next to nothing about – and these I found mostly boring.
At the end of the book, Hans is talking to a minor character who had considered funding Chuck’s idea for a cricket club in New York:
“The New York Cricket Club,” Faruk says, raising his eyebrows, “was a splendid idea – a gymkhana in New York. We had a chance there. But would the big project have worked? No. There’s a limit to what Americans understand. The limit is cricket.” – from Netherland, page 251 –
And this is pretty much how I felt about O’Neill’s novel. A good idea, but it did not work for me. Although this book has gotten some great reviews (including being recognized as a NYT Most Notable book in 2008), I wonder if many Americans will struggle as I did with a story which in large part centers around a sport which is not well-known in our country. Some readers might like this one.