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The author of "Blood-Dark Track" delivers a mesmerizing novel about a man trying to make his way in an America of shattered hopes and values, and the unlikely occurrences that pull him back into an authentic, passionately engaged life.

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Apr 8, 2020

The Cricket Players Of New York

Much of Joseph O'Neill's novel, "Netherland", involves the game of cricket as played by a diverse group of immigrants to New York City. The game becomes a way of bonding and of escaping anonymity and loneliness in an endless city. Cricket also is in the novel a metaphor for New York City and the United States with their promise of possibility and of respecting pluralism, while still making one nation out of many peoples. O'Neill's novel reminded me of a beautiful short poem by the American poet Irvin Feldman (b. 1928) called "The Handball Players of Brighton Beach." In his poem, Feldman describes how a group of Jewish-American immigrants or sons of immigrants get together every Sunday to play handball. Feldman captures the sagging bellies, the out-of-date clothing, of the aging participants in this ritual. His poem describes how the players are joined together by their memories and their hopes as they come together for moments of friendship and play in their harried, varied lives. The poem gives the scene a timeless, static feel.

The cricket metaphor does not work as well for O'Neill in his novel as the handball metaphor works for Feldman in his rare poem. O'Neill spends a great deal of time with the minutae of the game which confused me and which, I think, will confuse most American readers. O'Neill overdoes the game, its details, and its obscurity in the United States, as compared with much of the rest of the world. My eyes blurred over. Near the end of the book, a minor character pointedly observes of the cricket-promoting schemes of one of the main characters that Americans don't understand cricket. He thus undermines both the schemes of the character described in the novel and also, unfortunately, part of the novel itself.

The valuable qualities of the book include O'Neill's character descriptions and his portrayal of New York City as epitomizing the American dream. The three main characters in the novel are Hans, his wife Rachel, and Han's friend Chuck Ramkisoon, a native of Trinadad who proudly identifies himself as an American. Hans is a successful analyst of oil and gas stocks who was born in the Netherlands, worked for a large London investment house, and moved to New York City to follow his wife Rachel, a successful corporate lawyer. The couple are wealthy and have a small son, Jake. Hans and Rachel also are in the midst of an apparently lifeless, passionless marriage. Rachel returns to London without Hans following the events of September 11, 2001.

The story centers more for me on Hans and Chuck than on Hans and Rachel. O'Neill gives a picture of anomie and loss in urban America. The tie-in to September 11 seems to me secondary to this. With the loss of Rachel and Jake, Hans is rootless and alone and unhappy for, he claims, the first time in his life. His work no longer satisfies Hans and he wanders aimlessly through the streets, friendless. The novel offers good portraits of the old Chelsea Hotel and its eccentric residents, of the numbing mindlessness of applying for a driver's permit of the Department of Motor Vehicles, and of being alone and confused. Through a cricket game, Hans meets Chuck who has both American dreams and shady, violent business connections that are never fully explained in the story. The two become friends, but the relationship ultimately results in Hans's decision to return to England where he attempts a reconciliation with Rachel. Chuck comes to symbolize for Hans and for the reader the promise and the difficulty of the American dream.

The story is told in the first-person by Hans by means of flashbacks, memories, and frequent changes of scene. The novel chronologically begins near the end with Hans settled again in his London life but with New York City in his heart. As events unfold, Hans recalls and describes earlier parts of his life, as a child in the Netherlands with his mother after his father's untimely death, in London where as a rising financial analyst he courts and marries Rachel, and in New York. Hans sees life through the eyes of memory and through his ideals. His lawyerly wife is far more practical and down-to-earth.

O'Neill expands upon his story of the City and of some of its diverse residents with reflections of September 11, the war in Iraq, former president George Bush, and the United States' diminished moral stature and role in the world. The writing comes close to polemics at times, but O'Neill succeeds, I think, in backing away from and limiting the polemic and in keeping his focus on his characters and on the role New York City comes to play for them. The role of cricket, as a metaphor for diversity and for cameraderie, is essential to the story but, as I suggested above, overdone. This book is one out of a large number of American novels that try to capture something of the American promise through a look at New York City and through describing the City's eternal fascination. It is a good book and worth reading.

Robin Friedman

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