My only firsthand experience with the sport of cricket came when I (Ben) lived in Pittsburgh and ran the Carnegie Mellon track late at night. Inside the track, beneath the lights, a small crowd of CMU students engaged in what was, to me, a mostly indecipherable form of sport. Even if I had understood the rules, I would not have possessed the elegence of mind to describe what I saw like this: A “white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge toward the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors.” That’s how Joseph O’Neill describes cricket in his new novel, Netherland. If you read just one book on cricket this year, Netherland is it.
For O’Neill, cricket is the way into not just the lives of the book’s two main characters, the Dutchman narrator Hans van den Broek and his larger-than-life Trinidadian friend Chuck Ramkissoon, but also life in New York after 9/11, and, more broadly, the American Dream. Chuck is a modern day Gatsby who believes he can build a world-class cricket arena (named, fittingly, Bald Eagle Field) right in Brooklyn. “All people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilized when they’re playing cricket,” he says.
“What’s the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. … I say, we want to have something in common with Hindus and Muslims? Chuck Ramkissoon is going to make it happen. With the New York Cricket Club, we could start a whole new chapter in U.S. history. Why not?”
Chuck, who helps Hans practice for his driving test by letting Hans chauffeur him all across New York, is a dreamer. His motto is, literally, “Think fantastic.” (“I didn’t think people had mottoes anymore,” Hans says to him.) But as we find out early in the novel, from the year 2006 looking back, Chuck’s body has been found in the Gowanus Canal. How he ends up there (Chuck runs a gambling ring and, unbeknownst to Hans at first, is using their driving expeditions to tend to business) unfolds throughout the novel, but Netherland doesn’t turn on plot. We are told, at the beginning, that Hans is reunited with his wife and son, after spending years separated from them by the Atlantic Ocean. While the book traces the arc of Hans’s marriage, the story is less linear than circular: Hans’s memories take him back and forth in time, from 2008 to 2001 and the years in between, but also back to his childhood in The Hague and, in a lovely scene, one particular day playing hooky from school so he could go ice skating. When his mother unexpectedly shows up, Hans fears punishment. Instead, she falls in beside him and joins him in this stolen moment.
What Netherland captures, in prose most writers would kill for, are moments of life breaking into pieces and then, slowly and unexpectedly, rearranging themselves into something different but still whole. “A life seemed like an odd story,” Hans muses, and O’Neill captures that exactly: the oddity of living in New York after 9/11; of losing your wife and son, then regaining them through no real virtue of your own; of being an immigrant in a country of promise and opportunity that nonetheless makes something as straightforward as obtaining a driver’s license an infuriating, dehumanizing exercise; and of finding a home among strangers who are invisible to most of America, engaging in a foreign game, on the margins of New York City.
Near the end of the book, Hans sits at his computer in London and uses Google Maps to search for Bald Eagle Field. The field, like Chuck’s vision for it and Chuck himself, has died: “It is brown — the grass has burned — but it is still there. There’s no trace of a batting square. The equipment shed is gone. I’m just seeing a field.” Hans continues,
I am contending with a variety of reactions, and consequently with a single brush on the touch pad I flee upward into the atmosphere and at once have in my sights the physical planet. … From up here, though, a human’s movement is a barely intelligible thing. Where would he move to, and for what? There is no sign of nations, no sense of the so-called work of man.
As he does throughout the book, O’Neill whips us from the microscopic to the wide lens. I finished Netherland thinking I had read about a dozen things that O’Neill never even put on the page.