2/3 Book Challenge: Netherland

A Hole in the Skyline

In the early part of September, The New Yorker published a series of brief interviews with contributors about their experience with 9/11 – both the event and the aftermath. The final question in each essay asked which piece of work to emerge from 9/11 has had the most lasting impact on their lives, perceptions, etc. Several respondents mentioned Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, so I added it to my list.

Netherland isn’t about 9/11, but it’s constantly there in the background, the hinge-point for the before and after of one man’s life. Which isn’t to say that 9/11 caused the novel’s subsequent events – rather, it was an excuse for a separation, which then sets the narrator adrift in New York, eventually finding himself – literally and figuratively – in a sea of immigrants on the cricket pitch.

In some ways, it’s a story of the American Dream. The narrator, Hans, is befriended by a Trinidadian immigrant named Chuck Ramkissoon, an entrepreneur in staking his claim on America through a series of enterprises, the grandest of which being the foundation of the New York Cricket Club. Chuck believes that America needs cricket, needs to rediscover its first sport, played in New York by Dutch immigrants long before baseball came along. Cricket is civilizing, according to Chuck, simultaneously competitive and uniting. On the cricket field, it doesn’t matter that the players are immigrants of all flavors – or that Hans is the only white man, a Dutch immigrant surrounded by those whose countries his ancestors colonized.

In others, it is about finding connection, finding home. Hans’s wife decamps for England with their son, leaving Hans to shuttle back and forth every few weeks, retracing the steps that led him to New York in the first place. When he is in New York, he lives and breathes cricket, recalling his childhood obsession with the sport, and then, by extension, his Dutch childhood. In the flexible and loosely bound community of cricketers, Hans finds a support network lacking in his personal and professional life – while the friends are only joined by their love of cricket, they feel an obligation to care for each other, as do Hans’s strange collection of neighbors at the Chelsea Hotel.

One respondent to The New Yorker’s 9/11 project wrote that Netherland “seems to capture with great poignancy that powerful sense that a certain kind of world has slipped away.” This summarizes the book better than I possibly can. It’s wonderful and wonderfully written, full of sadness and loss and exploration. I couldn’t put it down and now that I’m finished, I can’t stop thinking about it.

This is the first of at least 15 books that I plan to read in the next year for my friend Mark’s 2/3 Challenge.

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