BOOK REVIEW: Netherland 

City of Exiles: Learning to be American means finding oneself, even after 9/11

Netherland [Buy Now]
By Joseph O'Neill
Pantheon, 272 pages, $24

Outlegged by news networks that never sleep, outsold by the juggernaut of visual entertainment, the novel doesn't bring us the news as it once did. Or at least it's easy to think so until you pick up a book like Joseph O'Neill's splendid Netherland.

This wholly unexpected novel turns the city once known as Nueve Amsterdam inside out with the tale of a Dutch banker clinging to his crumbling marriage and family in the aftermath of 9/11. It is a fabulous, deeply enjoyable New York story about the fantasies that prop up daily reality — in other words, a deeply New York novel about that deeply New York penchant: new beginnings.

The man we're rooting for — and it's impossible not to cheer him on — is Hans van den Broek, a six-foot five, 40-something equity analyst who spends a good deal of the book holed up at the Chelsea Hotel, the bohemian landmark where Arthur Miller wrote some of his best known work and Andy Warhol once called home.

Something essential jostled free from Hans' marriage after 9/11, sending his ex-pat wife back to England with their son, Jake. Hans stays behind and pours his restless, misbegotten self into a cricket league out on Staten Island, where he meets — and befriends — a Trinidadian entrepreneur of sorts, Chuck Ramkissoon. Chuck's dream is to build a world-class cricket arena in Brooklyn.

This unlikely plot provides more than enough power for this book, as it allows O'Neill to do what he does best — riff, observe, and ruminate, through Hans eyes, on life in New York. No writer since Paul Auster has captured the funky mystery of the city so well — the skuzzy diners and bumbling eccentrics, the mythology of self-renewal, the pockets of populations so hastily mashed together.

It's a world in stark contrast to the ordered Holland of Hans' youth, a place and period O'Neill sketches in flashbacks so poignant and elegant it is impossible not to feel Hans' exile from them in the pit of your stomach.

Hans, as O'Neill has created him, is a perfect guide to New York and an explainer of why the Big Apple is such a city of exiles. He is lonely but curious, old enough to be skeptical, desperate enough to allow himself the apertures of optimism and curiosity, even after witnessing (or at least rubbernecking) the spectacle which was 9/11.

As a Dutchman, he is always on the outside, which in New York puts him right at the center.

O'Neill seems to have intuitively understood this odd bit of New York cosmology in putting together this remarkable book. For cricket, as it turns out, is also a perfect metaphor for how to become an American — that's what Chuck and Hans and all the Guyanese, Pakistani, Indian, and West Indian men are doing out on Staten Island in the most nonchalant way, meshing together old traditions in a place that's always new.

But they're also just playing a game — forgetting themselves. It's a fine balance — one New Yorkers had to relearn after 9/11. O'Neill has stuffed Netherland full of echoes of that day, but ultimately the novel transcends it.

There are sentences so beautiful they lodge in the reader's mind and remind us of the inimitable pleasure of encountering the world through its shapely reflection in a book — even if the city that book shows us is far too rundown to live up to its glamorous image anymore.


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