Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland

NetherlandIt is difficult to imagine a more un-American sport than cricket, despite its obvious similarities with baseball, “America’s national pastime.” Soccer has found its North American converts, but cricket remains the sport of outsiders, rarely broadcast on television or played in schools. Khamraj Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant to New York, is determined to change that, and his commitment to the game  – as an umpire and later as the founder of the ill-fated New York Cricket Club – is what first brings him to the attention of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker and our narrator. The unlikely pair meet at a cricket game in New York’s Randolph Walker Park in the summer of 2002, just after Hans’ marriage begins to unravel.

Chuck introduces Hans, the Dutchman, to America’s true netherworld, populated by West Indians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians and Pakistanis, not the sort of people Hans would be likely to meet in his high-powered finance career. Indeed, outside the cricket pitch, Hans has chance encounters with his teammates and adversaries at gas stations and convenience stores or in taxi cabs, in places like Hoboken and Passaic and Queens and Brooklyn, when he can finally attach names to faces. But Chuck is different. He is both our gateway to this world and an aspiring escapee from it. He is, first of all, a prodigious entrepreneur, operating a restaurant and an illegal gambling operation on top of his cricket work. Like Gatsby, he has changed his name and attempted to reinvent himself with money, but unlike Gatsby there is no Daisy motivating him. Chuck has a wife, and since his arrival in America has taken on a mistress: “[…]my theory is, I need two women… One to take care of me, one to make me feel alive. It’s too much to ask one woman to do both.” He is not one of Roosevelt’s “hyphenated Americans,” but someone who genuinely desires to assimilate, who attaches an “I support the troops” bumper sticker to his car. And yet, from almost the novel’s first page, we learn that he has been killed, his body discovered handcuffed at the bottom of a canal adjacent to a Home Depot.

Netherland tells two stories – that of a marriage’s collapse and renewal, and of the immigrant experience in America – but of the two, the latter is far more compelling. Rachel, Hans’ wife, seems sketched only in outline, and in terms that are often contradictory: she is a high-ranking corporate attorney in her professional life, and a capricious and uncertain wife, whose trans-Atlantic flights seem more like conveniences to move the plot forward rather than practical solutions to a failing marriage. Carried away by O’Neill’s beautiful prose, and the larger vision of American society created by his characters, these are trifling issues, easily forgiven.