Friday, August 1, 2008
Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill--a review
In the aftermath of 9/11, ex-pat Dutchman Hans Van den Broek feels adrift in New York. His wife, Rachel, needing to get away from New York, and needing a break from their marriage, moves back to her native England with their young son Jake. Hans, a victim of inertia, stays in New York, in their temporary digs at the Chelsea Hotel. Hans also falls into the sphere of enterprising, larger-than-life Trinidadian Chuck Ramkissoon, an entrepreneur and a dreamer whose dealings are not all on the up and up. Chuck has the dream of building a state-of-the-art cricket stadium in Queens to attract world-class cricket to New York, where he believes the many immigrant communities would support it. Hans, who played cricket as a boy in Amsterdam, begins to play again with the mostly Indian and West Indian immigrants who play the game in New York.
Netherland is mostly about healing the breach in Hans's relationship with his wife that was caused by the trauma of 9/11, and about the relationship that Hans forms with Chuck, a person totally outside of Hans's normal sphere. This relationship grows partly because Chuck is not affected in the same way as Hans by 9/11; unlike Hans, Chuck is not stopped in his tracks, but continues to make strides forward in his life.
I had read that people compare this book to The Great Gatsby, and it's easy to see where those comparisons come from. Chuck Ramkissoon makes a great modern-day Gatsby, a Trinidadian immigrant go-getter with questionable business dealings, who is attracted to Hans for his legitimacy. Chuck is both a naive believer in the American dream, and is willing to be a hustler to achieve it. And Hans is similar to Nick Carraway, detached observer but also drawn into Chuck's charismatic world.
It is a really interesting portrait of two enigmatic men, one who speaks too little, and one who speaks too much, but both of whom, despite some indefinable connection they feel, remain mysterious to each other.
Of course, the two men are also mysterious to others--to the other people in their lives. O'Neill's portrayal of Hans is that of a man who thinks a lot, but says little. In his struggle to remain married to his wife, there are so many times when he remains quiet in the face of her judgements, opinions and pronouncements about their relationship. He often seems like a deer caught in her headlights. Hans tells us what he feels and thinks, but he often cannot tell his wife.
Chuck, though voluble, is just as enigmatic. He has hidden layers to his life, layers that Hans can only guess at, and that end up being dark and dangerous. Chuck's pursuit of the American dream, like Gatsby's, ends in tragedy. O'Neill's vision of the American dream, as elusive and fraught with hidden pitfalls, and as likely to end in failure as success, definitely provided me with much food for thought.
I found O'Neill's writing style to be accessible, yet multi-layered. I loved his evocation of New York, as it is also multi-layered. He takes us to Chelsea, Brooklyn, Queens, and up the Saw Mill River parkway to towns outside the city, as well as to London, Amsterdam and Trinidad.
And I have to admit, I love books where I read a passage and I think, "I've thought that. I really relate to that." There were many such times in this book. The most obvious one I can point out (and it's trivial in the story, really), is a point in the book when Hans is with his son, asking if he wants to learn to play cricket. Then Hans says, "He is only six. When he plays football he is still dreamy in the extreme and only kicks at the ball if woken up by a shout. It is like Ferdinand the Bull and the flowers." And that is exactly how I describe my son, who played soccer (football to Hans) for only two years. When he was six, on his first soccer team, and would stand out in the field dreaming instead of participating in the game, I used to describe him as "Ferdinand the Bull." I love it when something like that happens when I read a book--when it seems an author is speaking to me in particular.
I also enjoyed Hans's subtle journey from dark to light. At the beginning of the story, Hans is paralyzed and depressed, and O'Neill, through the crucible of New York and Hans's relationship with Chuck, takes him through the darkness to a kind of healing. I found O'Neill's New York, and the immigrants and the dreamers who fall under its spell, to be a very involving place.