Declan Hughes

Monday, 12 May 2008

Book Review

Netherland

By Joseph O'Neill

Novels are about love and sex and death and The Way We Live Now, or they are about nothing much at all. Except, of course, if they are American novels, in which case they get to be about all these things and about America too. Not America the country – one might as well read a guidebook – but America the Enlightenment idea, America the dream of yearning and infinite possibility, America as represented by Jay Gatsby's green light, "the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us."

In his remarkable new novel, Joseph O'Neill does not make any bones about his debt to Fitzgerald's great masterpiece: when, on page two, his diffident narrator Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker who will be more spectator than protagonist in his own story, says of his time in New York, "But there's no such thing as a cheap longing, I'm tempted to conclude these days", the shade of Nick Carraway appears instantly at his shoulder. On the same page, a note of dark pastoral sounds when we are told that New York City insists on "memory's repetitive mower", which has the effect of "cutting the grassy past to manageable proportions. For it keeps growing back, of course."

The unattainable green in Netherland is not the light at the end of a dock, but the bright grass of a cricket pitch, and the dream is of cricket as a civilizing, cosmopolitan force that will rid the US of its insularity and enable it to build bridges with the immigrant Muslims and Hindus who play the game. Give It Back To The Indians, so to speak. O'Neill's Gatsby is Chuck Ramkissoon, Trinidadian immigrant, motormouthed autodidact, builder and developer and small-time gangster whose murdered body is discovered in a canal at the start of the book, and whose ebullient comic spirit is celebrated throughout its length; it is a measure of O'Neill's considerable novelistic gifts that Chuck's quixotic dream never subsides into bathos, or loses its glamorous allure.

O'Neill, an Irish-born, Dutch-raised barrister based in New York, has published two previous novels, but he is probably best known for Blood-Dark Track, a family history of his grandfathers' imprisonment during the second world war – one was interned for being a member of the IRA, the other, a Turk, was suspected of spying for the Germans – which read like an espionage thriller.

Hans van den Broek – "a member of the first tribe of New York, excepting of course the Red Indians" - falls gradually under Chuck Ramkissoon's spell as he spends two lonely, wretched years alone in New York. Anxious for the family's safety, his wife has taken their son back to London in the doom-laden aftermath of 9/11, a trial separation that is showing ominous signs of permanence. The marriage has collapsed because they are frightened, and angry at each other, and tired all the time, and because Hans, to his shame, cannot find it in himself to fight what he fears is inevitable: "that love was loss, that nothing worth saying was sayable, that dullness was general, that disintegration was irresistible." He walks the streets of the city, a melancholy, acute observer of its signs and wonders: "The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits" but if you looked down "you saw a foul mechanical dark"; "The tail lights, the coarse blaze of deserted office buildings, the lit store fronts, the orange fuzz of the street lanterns: all this garbage of light had been refined into a radiant atmosphere that rested in a low silver heap over Midtown"; Times Square's billboards and news tickers are "shimmers and vapours", to be regarded "as one might the neck feathers of certain of the city's pigeons – as natural, humble sources of iridescence."

The pick-up games of cricket among the Asians and West Indians of New York provide Hans initially with a respite from desolation; slowly the players become companions and finally, undemonstratively, as is the way with men, friends. Hans has not been an especially valuable asset to the team because he refuses to alter his orthodox batting style to suit the hardscrabble cricket pitches, but in the last game of the season, he experiences his own fleeting epiphany of release and reinvention: "I'd hit the ball in the air like an American cricketer, and I'd done so without injury to my sense of myself."

Netherland ends triumphantly, numinously, with two sunsets: one in London, atop the Eye, Hans happily reunited with his family; the other on the Staten Island Ferry as it approaches pre-lapsarian Manhattan, the twin towers looming, his mother alive and by his side. In a sustained passage of intense lyric beauty that more than squares any debt to Fitzgerald, O'Neill writes: "I wasn't the only one of us to make out and accept an extraordinary promise in what we saw – the tall approaching cape, a people risen in light. You only had to look at our faces."

The Irish Times, Saturday May 10th

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