Joseph O'Neill: Deep Point
When I was about ten years old, I loved reading a series of books that featured a boy called Jennings and his sidekick Derbyshire who got into what could only be termed "jolly scrapes" at a boys' boarding school
in England. These harmless stories of naughtiness and pranks perfectly reflected the world in which I found myself—I too attended a boys' boarding school in England—even to the point that there was something timeless about the characters and the setting of the Jennings books. Jennings and Derbyshire never got older or wiser; their school never changed; the outside world never impinged. My school in the early 1970s felt much the same: it might as well have been the early 1950s for all there was a sense of times changing . . . or girls . . . or adulthood.
Of course, the point of reading is to bring you bigger worlds and more diverse experiences; to help you grope your way through life's passages and the ways of the heart and usher you into the complexities of getting older and needing to be, at least on the face of it, more responsible. Over the next three decades I read more broadly, and I like to think widened my circle of empathy. I just finished a short story in which I was asked to imagine what it must be like to be an old Chinese peasant seed keeper whose whole world is going to be inundated by the Three Gorges Dam. Jennings and Derbyshire it ain't.
Therefore, it was with something approaching wonder that I read Netherland
by Joseph O'Neill, and found myself not only transported into another experience but that eerily my own quotidian life was strongly reflected in it.
The novel is set in New York City, with excursions to London, The Hague, Italy, Arizona, and even Kerala in southern India. It tells the story of a Dutchman, Hans van den Broek who, while outwardly successful, is undergoing a personal crisis with the breakdown of his marriage to an Englishwoman, Rachel, in the aftermath of 9/11. Hans finds a degree of purpose when he chances upon Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian of south Indian extraction, who loves cricket, which he believes offers life lessons for, and a business opportunity, in America. The author, Joseph O'Neill, is an Irishman who grew up in Holland, and who plays cricket in New York
Well, like Hans van den Broek and Joseph O'Neill, I'm an ex-pat who lives in New York, and whose walked many of the streets and seen the sites that van den Broek narrates. Like author and main character, I feel my sense of foreignness and yet relish the layering of new ethnicities over the soil of the English and the Dutch and the Native Americans who preceded all of us. Most directly, I too have been the only Northern European on a team of Caribbeans of Indian extraction, playing cricket on the rough playing fields on the edges of this city, to the amusement and bafflement of onlookers.
The ebullient anti-hero Ramkissoon expresses the belief that cricket is the ultimate American sport because it is so
diverse, and, because it is played on the margins by immigrants it is, in some ways, the ultimate representation of all that America—and especially New York—can be. I can only concur: finding myself on a team, even though I had nothing in common with my teammates other than a love of the game of cricket (and, indeed, could barely understand their patois), gave me a feeling of belonging to something huge and polyglot and infinitely absorbing (in all senses of the word)—and crystallized, in some way, what New York was and what was at stake when it was attacked that September.
O'Neill's beautifully composed, witty, and melancholy reflection on middle-age, love, and the importance of place has other resonances—even down to the fact that both Rachel and I use the same non-toxic pest control company, and the Gowanus Canal and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway make cameo appearances. I've walked in the same streets in The Hague and in London, and I also had an experience of desolation in Arizona.
More than anything, though, Netherland
echoed my belief in the importance of commitment to an idea or a person and a place, even while the toxic rivers of guilt and regret eat away beneath the carefully mowed outfield of your life.