Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

In The New York Times Book Review, Dwight Garner described Netherland as “the wittiest, angriest, most exacting, and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell.” And since reading it myself, I’ve been wondering what I could add to that assessment.

The idea of “post-9/11″ fiction is one that frustrates me. New York is New York is New York, and even standing across the street from the great hole in the earth that is still Ground Zero, you will be awash in a sea of business suits and cabbies and assorted other denizens of the financial district. The maze of lower Manhattan is even more difficult for driving with streets blocked off here and there, but in so many ways the city goes on—of course it does—and to demand of American novelists that they “confront” this event so we can have some sort of catharsis seems fundamentally wrong.

Which is why one of the things that appealed to me most about Netherland was that it was a post-9/11 novel that treated that tragic day as a fact of life. Hans, the protagonist, and his wife Rachel, are forced to leave their Chelsea apartment with their infant son and move into the Chelsea Hotel. Rachel, rattled by terrorism and American jingoism, and probably by a marriage on the rocks, leaves for London while Hans stays on. And Hans has a wonderful New York story to share with us once she’s left.

Alone and left to wander the hotel and the city, he finds to his surprise that there is a bit of a cricket underground in the New York metro area. The only white player among dozens of West Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Indians, Hans reverts to the sport of his youth and finds happiness on the pitch every other Saturday. He is led to discover more than just Chelsea and Wall Street—and his journeys through Brooklyn and the outer boroughs are not marred by any hipster teenagers or trendy hangouts. The cricket world is a point of entry to vital, teeming, immigrant New York—and while Hans may be white and a high-flying financier, he is very much the immigrant. Much of this culture spills out into the suburbs as well, and when Hans’s team played away games I was reminded of the Jamaican cricketers always found playing on my junior high school’s baseball field.

That is, I think, the great success of the novel. It is firmly post-9/11; it doesn’t try to hide or whitewash the tragedy. But it moves on, it takes us to Queens and even Peekskill and to the depths of the weirdness that is the Chelsea Hotel—ridiculously apt that a wealthy young couple should move there after being displaced from their tony loft.

Meanwhile O’Neill also does an excellent job of exploring an all too real marriage—one full of low-grade malaise that Hans just can’t seem to get his wife to overcome. As Hans wanders around the city with his new-found friend Chuck (O’Neill also does wonderful things with quiet, accepting-at-face-value male companionship), he thinks about his child, his wife, how he lost them, how he can get them back.

…I said nothing, thinking the matter inconsequential. It would certainly have astonished me to learn that years later I would look back on this episode and ask myself, as I did at the Elegant Antun’s, if it represented a so-called fork in the road—which in turn led me to drunkenly wonder if the course of a relationship of love was truly explicable in terms of right turns and wrong turns, and if so whether it was possible to backtrack to that split where it all went wrong, or if in fact it was the case that we are all doomed to walk in a forest in which all paths lead one equally astray, there being no end to the forest, an inquiry whose very uselessness led to another spasm of wayward contemplation that ended only when I noticed Chuck leading a hobbled Dr. Seem back into the chair next to mine.

Hans tells his story with the benefit of hindsight, so in a sense the whole novel is a backtracking over these forks—with Rachel, with Chuck, with his mother, with his career.

Does it take a foreigner to write a novel of New York that understands so well its immigrant center? It seems wrong, but O’Neill does not disappoint here. Does one have to leave New York to finally go home? I hope not—but Hans does, and his is now one of my favorite New York stories.