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The 'cricket novel' is born

New American citizen Joseph O'Neill sees his 'Netherland,' set among immigrants, as a work in the American Dreamer tradition.

June 24, 2008|Maria Russo | Times Staff Writer

Joseph O'Neill's fourth book and third novel, "Netherland," has introduced the unlikely phrase "cricket novel" into the literary lexicon. The story is told in the voice of Hans Van der Broek, a Dutch banker living in New York with his English wife when the Twin Towers are hit. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, his wife retreats to England with their son, and Hans, bereft and adrift, gravitates toward the vibrantly scruffy New York cricket scene, a polyglot world in which he is virtually the only white face.

He soon meets Chuck Ramkisoon, a Trinidadian entrepreneur of Pakistani descent who aims to build a first-class, internationally prominent cricket stadium in the wilds of Brooklyn. The noble, civilizing sport of cricket, Chuck feels, would then be burned into the American consciousness, elevating both the nation and the social status of the brown-skinned immigrants like him who play their beloved sport on run-down fields on the city's margins.

Yes, the novel is a lucid celebration of a complex sport that is little understood here, but it's also a book about the emotional legacies of Sept. 11, and it's a book that takes up some deep and enduring literary themes: connection, estrangement and, not least, what it means to be American.

The Cambridge-educated O'Neill, who has an Irish father and a Turkish mother and was raised largely in the Netherlands, last year became an American citizen. He talked by phone from his home in New York recently about why his book is an American novel -- and why it's gotten such an extraordinary critical reaction.

Maybe 'post-American'

"I actually do consider it an American novel. First of all, it's about America, and also the kind of central dramatic device, cricket, gains its traction from being un-American. So it's a novel in which the ostensibly un-American is pitted against the American. And an Irish novel normally doesn't do those things.

"I also think it's in a very specific American literary tradition, that of The American Dreamer. I don't want to suggest any kind of canonical future for this book, because that would be stupid -- but 'The Great Gatsby' is obviously in that tradition, and one of the books I've loved since I was a teenager. I've been entranced by those kinds of American narrators -- like the narrator of Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man' -- and the voice they share, the voice of a turbulent individual consciousness. Saul Bellow does that too, and Marilynne Robinson. You can just go on and on, back to 'Moby Dick' and even farther.

"It's related to one of the founding narratives of American culture, which is that the country offers an exclusive experience: If you come here, you're privileged with exclusive economic and spiritual opportunities. That is the old theory.

"But I sometimes think of it in a way as a post-American novel. Most basically, most literally, Hans is speaking from an 'after' perspective. Also, at the end of the book, he has this rather important conversation with an investor, who is a kind of guru. And the guru says you had it completely wrong, you just put the stadium in the U.S. and you have a global market. . . . In this kind of globalized world, money and people and information flow without reference to national boundaries. The idea that the U.S. is exclusive and almost impermeable, a world of opportunity, is simply not true anymore.

"And that's changed in the last 10 years. It used to be the case that people would come to the U.S. by boat or whatever, and they could do things here that they couldn't do anywhere else. . . . What America offers you can now get all over the world. Because your physical situation, your location just doesn't matter.

"America will absorb and offer an identity to immigrants just as it always has -- it's just that it's not as necessary. Then of course there was 9/11, you had this horrible penetration of the United States by the outside world. It was a kind of grotesque emblem of globalization.

Finding the voice

"You do your best to think of a certain character, and that can take years. It did in this case. I had wanted to talk about this Trinidadian businessman, who happens to be a Hindu, and then came Hans to tell the story, and there was the question of, well, who is Hans? And Hans is not a political guy. He doesn't reflect particularly deeply or systematically about things, he has his hands full.

"I'm half Turkish. My mother's family is Christian. I'm very familiar with the Muslim world in Turkey. I find that the conflict with Islam is grossly overstated and obviously manipulated by Westerners, who are essentially victims of terror. They are terrorized by the terrorism. The whole point of terrorism -- and I know this because I have IRA in my family -- is to scare people into a false view of reality and to disorient them.

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