The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985. These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of The New
Canon, Ted Gioia reviews
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
by Joseph O'Neill
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Finally someone has written an intelligent novel that deals with that
great American sport . . . cricket.
Cricket! you exclaim. What's American about that?
But listen to Chuck Ramkissoon, the flamboyant
West Indian at the center of Joseph O'Neill's recent
novel Netherland, and he will set you straight.
"Cricket was the first modern team sport in America,"
Ramkissoon explains. "It came before baseball and
football. Cricket has been played in New York since
the 1770s . . . Cricket matches were watched by
thousands of fans. It was a professional sport
reported in all the newspapers. There were clubs all over the country. .
. So it is wrong to see cricket in America as most people see it . . . an
immigrant sport. It is a bona fide American pastime."
If your eyes are already glazing over at this, you may want to pass on
Netherland, with its Field of Dreams celebration of Yankee cricket.
Perhaps you (like me) have been stuck at dinner or, even worse, on a
long flight, next to a cricket enthusiast, who will quote every statistic
and will elaborate, ad nauseam, on the differences between a bouncer
and a bunsen, a flipper and a floater. And did you ever hear about
Dennis Lillee and Javed Miandad in 1981 . . .
Hey, wake up! No matter if your favorite cricket was Pinocchio's
sidekick, you may want to give this novel a chance. Even I got caught
up in Ramkissoon's plans to convert an old airfield into the New York
Cricket Club, with two thousand members shelling out a grand each in
dues, plus initiation fees; twelve exhibition matches every summer,
with eight thousand fans paying fifty bucks per ticket. Just dream for a
moment: India playing Pakistan in New York, with 70 million watching
via TV and Internet in India alone, and Nike and Coke lining up for
But Ramkissoon, the mastermind of this scheme, is not everything he
seems. Netherland is written from the perspective of stock analyst and
weekend cricketeer, Hans van den Broek, a hopelessly passive
spectator on his own life, who is charmed by these plans, but soon
discovers unsavory sides to his new friend. In short, not everything
about Ramkissoon is quite cricket, as they say.
Van den Broek's own life is in disarray. His wife leaves him, and moves
with their only son to London. He has no close friends, and spends his
time with oddball neighbors, most notably a strange Turkish man who
likes who dress up like an angel, wings and all. In the great tradition of
American narrators, from Nick Carraway (in The Great Gatsby) to
Augie March, Hans get swept away by the dreams of others, ignoring
all the warning signs that a more skeptical participant (not to mention
the readers themselves) would quickly observe.
As a result, the great cricket novel gradually turns into something
darker and more multi-layered. Van den Broek drifts apart from his
friend and decides to move to London, and though he is rewarded by
renewed hopes for his marriage, he continues to wonder about his
cricket-loving companion. Ramkissoon, for his part, gets caught up in
a downward spiral. A sports novel seems to be turning into a crime
Of course, this novel also reminds us of the time-honored storyline of
American immigrants trying to realize old dreams in a New World.
Netherland refuses to accepts the stereotypes or the (perhaps more
common) unwitting assumptions that typically color these accounts of
the Americanization of individuals and groups. Indeed, it ranks among
the most honest and least patronizing books on the immigrant
experience that you will encounter.
Yet our novelist is cagey and never provides us with all the details.
Chuck Ramkissoon will eventually disappear from the book's page,
leaving behind many unanswered questions. Yet he is a brilliantly
conceived character, and his presence creates a compelling center to
this Great American Cricket Novel, enlivening a subject that in the
hands of a lesser author might strike most of us Yanks as more tedious
than a three day test match.
|The Best in Fiction Since 1985