Over the years I've become an obsessive Anglophile, following British football and literature with the kind of unvarnished joy that can only come from being completely ill-informed on a subject. I don't know enough about either one to become jaded, though my adoption of Tottenham Hotspur as favorite team is beginning to change that.
My love of British books is exercised by following each year's Man Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary award for fiction in the U.K. The prize goes through a three-stage process with considerable hype in the British press. The Booker begins when a longlist of around 12-20 books is announced in late July. The list is winnowed down to a shortlist of around six titles in early September, then the winner is announced a month later.
Every year, I pick up a few novels on the Booker lists before the prize is awarded, hoping to read the winner beforehand and lord this over friends and family, in spite of the fact that I don't know a single person who would be excited by this accomplishment. This year my first finished Booker nominee is the longlisted Netherland, a powerfully written work by the Irish writer Joseph O'Neill that's being called the latest Great American Novel. The book's an introspective, slow-paced and mournful story of New York City that has the audacity to evoke both 9/11 and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
The novel concerns Dutch-born financial analyst Hans van den Broek, an affluent denizen of New York's Chelsea Hotel who loses the joy and purpose in his life when his wife Rachel flees both the city and their marriage after the trauma of 9/11, taking their infant son with her. Hans tells his own story, but devotes considerable energy to being the captivated narrator of another man's story -- a fast-talking and grandiose Trinidadian immigrant named Chuck Ramkissoon, a friend whose larger-than-life plan for achieving success and respectability in America is as doomed as that of Jay Gatsby.
This is not a spoiler. Readers learn early on that Ramkissoon has been found tied up and murdered in the Gowanus Canal.
The novel spends a great deal of time on cricket, the only spark in Hans' dark existence after his wife leaves. Although I know nothing of the sport that I didn't pick up from this book, it doesn't detract from the impact of O'Neill's long and lyrical passages about the role of the game in Hans' life, its role in the lives of first-generation American immigrants like Ramkissoon, and the invisibility of the game to most citizens of the United States, where cricket serves as a stand-in for other exotic foreign subjects we might want to know better after 9/11 shrank the planet. I was amused by the notion, held deeply by the cricket players in the book, that the U.S. will not become truly civilized until it embraces cricket. "There's a limit to what Americans understand," one of Ramkissoon's potential investors tells Hans. "That limit is cricket." Ramkissoon's big dream is to build a cricket pitch on an abandoned airfield in Brooklyn, believing it will attract the world's best teams, worldwide TV audiences and the long-withheld affection of Americans.
O'Neill packs the novel's 256 pages with observations about New Yorkers that are worth repeating. Two of my favorites occur in rapid succession when the heartsick and unsociable Hans finally lures a woman home, providing a welcome respite from his morose internal dialogue:
... while I changed, Danielle wandered around my apartment, as was her privilege: people in New York are authorized by convention to snoop around and mentally measure and pass comment on any real estate they're invited to step into. ...
Like an old door, every man past a certain age comes with historical warps and creaks of one kind or another, and a woman who wishes to put him to serious further use must expect to do a certain amount of sanding and planing.
In one conversation Ramkissoon uses a bit of Trinidadian slang that I really like. He derides one of his more obnoxious business associates as a pawmewan, a poor-me complainer who is always feeling sorry for himself. Hans is a huge pawmewan whose personal suffering occupies a majority of the book, but O'Neill describes the grieving and loss associated with failed marriage and parenthood with great skill.
Blogger Janice Harayda believes that Hans is an unreliable narrator, a prospect that adds considerable intrigue to Ramkissoon's murder. I don't know if I buy that, because O'Neill doggedly refuses to make Hans' life dramatic, devoting several pages at one point to an intolerably long day he wastes at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Although Netherland is by no stretch a thriller, O'Neill manages in Chuck Ramkissoon to create an unforgettable American character -- like Jay Gatsby another dreamer dead in the water.