I love New York. Love the variety, the strangeness, the spectacular nature of the city, the weird pockets of mini-neighborhoods, the way we’re all thrown together here, the way the city tosses mysteries at you that you will never solve. And I really love it when a novelist shows me the city I love and then some. Thank you, Joseph O’Neill. As it happens, I read most of Netherland on the subway, on my iPhone, grinning like a maniac and electronically dog-earing pages to revisit. For instance, here is the narrator Hans ruminating on his state of mind after his wife has left him: he is ashamed of his own fatalism, his sense “that life was beyond mending, that love was loss, that nothing worth saying was sayable, that dullness was general…” “That dullness was general.” Love the economy of that sentence.
Or how about this: “Sometimes to walk in shaded parts of Manhattan is to be inserted into a Magritte: the street is night while the sky is day.”
I could go on, but the book is a lot more than its studding of beautiful insights. Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker, is marooned in the city after 9/11 and his wife’s subsequent departure to England with their son. Reserved, rational Hans is an excellent protagonist, the kind of passive man to whom astounding things happen. His miracle is being befriended by Chuck Ramkissoon, an eloquent Trinidadian con man who… well, takes Hans for a ride. Literally. Figuratively.
What draws the men together is cricket. O’Neill obviously loves the game, and I will admit to a tiny bit of boredom with the technicalities. And sometimes he does hit you over the head with metaphors. I figure if I get it on the first reading it must be very obvious–as when Hans cannot change his batting style to accomodate American field conditions… and then once he does, and it feels great… OK. Got it. And then, the Dutchman, exploring through this most European of sports the exotic fringes of New York City… Check. The device might be annoying, but he does it so well.
This is basically a wanderjahr tale. Hans, severed from the relationships that tether him to the known world, wanders through an exotic landscape with few familiar signposts. Chuck Ramkissoon is his Aeneas, guiding, explaining, and above all staging Hans’s experience of New York. As the structure almost demands, there are set pieces — among them a blackout party at the Chelsea Hotel that takes full advantage of O’Neill’s taste for Gotham’s whimsical conjunctions of humankind.
If Hans is passive, he is not obtuse, and of course — this being a voyage of discovery — he gains wisdom. One of my favorite perceptions comes toward the end, when he is back in London. Recounting a colleague’s hapless attempt to pick up a woman, he writes, “We are in the realm not of logic but of wistfulness, and I must maintain that wistfulness is a respectable, serious condition. How, otherwise, to account for much of one’s life?”
Yet in the end it isn’t Hans’ wistfulness but Chuck’s gusto that rules Netherland. A life lesson?