Netherland: 1st Obama Book Club Selection

Book Review

Netherland by Joseph O’ Neill

Paperback: May, 2009, Vintage Contemporaries, NY, 272 pages.

kmcheadshot1-sml.jpgWonder what Barack Obama is reading besides Pentagon briefs? According to a recent N.Y. Times interview, the president declared he was “sick enough of briefing books to begin reading a novel in the evenings —Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill.”

With the Obama bounce sales of Netherland went off the charts. Vintage bumped their spring press run to 70,000 copies and moved the paperback publication date forward from June to May. It got my attention; I liked the idea of reading the same book as Barack Obama and imagined myself being invited join his West Wing book club. I didn’t care that the novel was about cricket, and my promise to myself to never read a novel related to 9/11 went out the window.

Netherland is a good read. The amount of plot crammed between the covers is positively Dickensian. Since we all have some familiarity with one of the novel’s main characters, namely New York City, O’Neill manages to tell a big story in a relatively short novel.

The narrative flow begins slowly, but in short order the story’s streams of consciousness race like class V whitewater rapids. It gets tough to catch one’s breath bobbing along through dreamlike incidents: multiple cricket matches; a birthday party for a terrier named Missy; a beautiful woman who wants to be whipped; the Turkish cross-dressing angel. Come to think of it, all angels wear dresses. This Turkish angel, however, is especially fashion conscious. He wears black wings to match his nail polish.

Hans van den Broek, our narrator, is a serious guy. He’s a Dutch-born oil analyst working for an international bank in New York City. His wife Rachel is an attorney. Their story begins shortly after 9/11. Hans, Rachel, and their baby son, Jake, become rich refugees from their Tribeca loft near ground zero. They move to the 9th floor of the legendary Hotel Chelsea in a $6000 a month, 2-bedroom apartment.

The Chelsea, on East 23rd Street, has a remarkable literary history. Home to those hard-drinking writers, Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas, it is also where punk rocker Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon. Jack Kerouc wrote On the Road, and Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there. In Netherland, the Chelsea is painted in surreal detail, warts and all.

Rachel calls it “a crappy hotel.” Evidently, $6000 a month doesn’t go far in Manhattan. She takes baby Jake and moves back to Europe. She doesn’t want Jake to grow up in George Bush’s America. Oddly enough, I found myself sympathetic to Hans, the poor dazed millionaire. Of course, as Hans ruminates at one point, back in the Clinton days, every fifth person he saw on the streets of Manhattan was likely a millionaire.

The facts that Hans is Dutch and that he plays cricket broaden Netherland’s geography beyond 23rd Street. Hans gravitates toward places that evoke New Amsterdam’s colonial roots. Kill Van Kull, Dutch Kill, Peekskill, Amsterdan Avenue, Staten Island. Kill is Dutch for stream. Staten Island was named by Henry Hudson to honor the Dutch Staaten, or State Parliament. It is on Staten Island, at a cricket match, that Hans meets the larger-than-life Chuck Ramkissoon. Most of the cricket players are immigrants from former British colonies in the tropics, Jamaica, India, Pakistan, Guyana. Chuck Ramkissoon hails from Trinidad.

Chuck Ramkissoon wants to change the world through cricket. He envisions a Cricket World Cup played on the state-of-the-art cricket grounds he is building in Brooklyn. Wealthy New York area immigrants from cricket loving lands, Pakistani techies, Indian surgeons, Jamaican entrepreneurs will purchase the deluxe box seats. The strivers and cabbies will opt for pay-per-view cable. The masses in the Middle East, South Asia and the Caribean will huddle around flickering screens to watch Hindus and Muslims and Christians play by the rules in a new multicultural U.S.A.

Initially Hans is skeptical, but his own love of the game and Chuck’s charisma and audacity lead to an unusual friendship.

The writing is dreamlike. Pages overflow with vivid descriptions of events, often followed by multiple layers of memories triggered by the original observation. For example, during an electrical blackout Hans is laying on the roof of a synagogue looking at the stars. He has a flashback to a starry night when he was twelve years old in a small open boat in the Mediterranean, which in turn reminds him of what his wife told him at the Shipwrecker’s Arms, a hotel on the coast of Cornwall. Netherland’s multiple layers of reminiscence are presented without parenthesis or italics. Thus the prose pulls the reader into a bewildering “nether” land.

My reading of Netherland was further complicated because I couldn’t stop wondering what Barack Obama would make of some of the passages. For example, might he read page 96 aloud to his own lawyer wife, Michelle? It’s an argument between Hans and Rachel:

‘She said, “Bush wants to attack Iraq as part of a right-wing plan to destroy international law and order as we know it and replace it with the global rule of American force. Tell me which part of that sentence is wrong, and why.” As usual, she was too quick quick for me…’

Netherland earned the 2009 Pen/Faulkner prize for best novel. There were a few moments the novel seemed too clever. Hans loses a tooth at one point. This doesn’t really advance the story, other than letting our narrator share his insights on the nature of dentistry. Fortunately, cleverness doesn’t preclude genius, and page after page of O’Neill’s prose rises to the level of art.


The first chapter of Netherland is available here. Author Joseph O’Neill was born in Ireland, but raised in The Netherlands. He does play cricket and lives in the Hotel Chelsea according to a NY TImes interview.

Joesph O’Neill will be talking about Netherland at The Philadelphia Free Public Library , Tues., June 16, 7:30 pm, Free, Info: 215-567-4341.

What will Barack Obama read next? Hugo Chavez gave him Open Veins of Latin America, but alas, it was the Spanish language edition. According to Obama’s FaceBook page his reading leans toward the American classics: Melville, Emerson, Lincoln. One modern novel listed is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, 2004.

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