Netherland

Obama suggested I read this book. Not directly of course, I actually saw in Newsweek that he was reading it. Usually, if you hear about a government official reading something, it’s some sort of nonfiction. You know, like Lincoln’s biography. But Obama is admitting to reading a work of fiction, which I find interesting, so I grabbed it. Maybe the White House should start a “One Book, One America” project kind of like we do here in Chicago. I would probably partake.

So here is the snippet from the Jon Meacham interview with Obama in the May 25, 2009 edition of Newsweek:

What are you reading? I’m reading this book called Netherland by Joseph O’Neill … It’s about after 9/11, a guy—his family leaves him and he takes up cricket in New York. And it’s fascinating. It’s a wonderful book, although I know nothing about cricket.

And as you divide up your time, when do you steal the time to do that? I’m a night owl. My usual day [is]: I work out in the morning; I get to the office around 9, 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.; work till about 6:30 p.m.; have dinner with the family, hang out with the kids and put them to bed about 8:30 p.m. And then I’ll probably read briefing papers or do paperwork or write stuff until about 11:30 p.m., and then I usually have about a half hour to read before I go to bed … about midnight, 12:30 a.m.—sometimes a little later.

Interesting stuff. I’m Newsweek reader. And I agree with Obama, it’s a fascinating book. There are so many cool moments in this book. I want to talk with someone who has read it.

It’s the story of a Dutch guy named Hans, a hotshot London-based economist for a big investment bank who moves to New York in about 2000 with his wife Rachel and young son Jake. They enjoy New York as a family for a couple of years then 9/11 hits and things start to change. Family problems ensue. His wife and son end up moving back to London but Hans stays in New York for a few more years.

He ends up befriending a guy from Trinidad named Chuck Ramkissoon, whom he met playing cricket. Chuck and Hans are both passionate about cricket and the game forms the bedrock of their friendship. They are completely different people in just about every way – race, religion, profession, upbringing, temperament – but they find common ground in this game; a common ground that transcends the field of play. This is a big theme in the book. Here’s a sampling where Hans is reflecting on the pre-match preparations:

Chutney music was playing, and to its relentlessly tinny and cheerful urgings we’d drive off to New Jersey, Philadelphia, Long Island. We sat mostly silently in the van, absorbed into the moodiness that afflicts competitors as they contemplate, or try to put out of their minds, the drama that awaits. What we talked about, when we did talk, was cricket. There was nothing else to discuss. The rest of our lives—jobs, children, wives, worries—peeled away, leaving only this fateful sporting fruit.

I love that passage. These aren’t professionals, these are just weekend warriors, but they are still passionate about the game. It gets deeper as the book progresses. Deeper in that O’Neill starts delving into the subtleties of how this sporting relationship creeps into other parts of our lives, and Hans’ and Chuck’s lives, but never fully hangs around.

The book is much, much bigger than this though.

It’s about New York, the aftermath of 9/11, and American politics, but it doesn’t make proclamations about right and wrong. It does make observations about what New Yorkers were talking about and how some of them felt. This is some of the frustration that Hans felt:

In this ever-shifting, all-enveloping discussion, my orientation was poor. I could not tell where I stood. If pressed to state my position, I would confess the truth: that I had not succeeded in arriving at a position. I lacked necessary powers of perception and certainty and, above all, foresight. The future retained the impenetrable character I had always attributed to it. Would American security be improved or worsened by taking over Iraq? I did not know, because I had no information about the future purposes and capacities of terrorists or, for that matter, American administrations; and even if I were to have such information, I could still not hope to know how things would turn out. Did I know if the death and pain caused by a war in Iraq would or would not exceed the miseries that might likely flow from leaving Saddam Hussein in power? No. Could I say whether the right to autonomy of the Iraqi people—a problematic national entity, by all accounts—would be enhanced or diminished by an American regime change? I could not. Did Iraq have weapons of mass destruction that posed a real threat? I had no idea; and to be truthful, and to touch on my real difficulty, I had little interest. I didn’t really care.

In short, I was a political-ethical idiot. Normally, this deficiency might have been inconsequential, but these were abnormal times.

This is typical Hans; highly successful, but somewhat insecure, and really more concerned about getting through his day rather than dwelling on issues like this. I wonder if many New Yorkers felt like this. O’Neill is a New Yorker, so he must be basing this on something.

** PLOT KILLERS FOLLOW **

It’s also about marriage and how it changes with time and circumstances. Hans’ and Rachel’s marriage unravels with 9/11, but not because of 9/11. But they don’t get divorced and it eventually revives. The psychological wrangling that Hans goes through surrounding Rachel is a big part of the book. He perseveres through the arguments, the affairs, and the ocean.

The arguments often center on America and the reaction to 9/11. Rachel spews out acidic tirades against George Bush and Hans doesn’t get why she’s all wound up. Hans, I think, loves New York. Hans and Rachel eventually find some middle ground. There’s a great scene late in the book where Rachel has to weigh her feelings for America against her feelings for Hans. It occurs at a dinner party in London where one of their British friends, Matt, refers to 9/11 as “not a big deal.” Hans disagrees strongly and the others seem to be on his side, but much snickering amongst this small group of Brits makes it clear that they find his views laughable. The following ensues, told in first person by Hans:

For some reason, I’m filled with rage.

I lean over to Rachel. I gesture with my eyes, Let’s go.

Rachel has not followed what has happened. She looks surprised when I stand up and put on my jacket. It’s a surprise for all, since we have not finished our roast chicken.

“Come on, Hans, sit down,” Matt says.“Rachel, talk to him.”

Rachel looks at her old friend and then at me. She stands up. “Oh, piss off, Matt,” she says, and waves good-bye to everyone. It is quite a shocking moment, in the scheme of things, and of course exhilarating. When we step out together into the wet street, holding hands, there is a tang of glory in the air.

Cool stuff. Watching their evolving relationship is a great part of this book.

O’Neill also incorporates some contemporary cultural references that I was surprised by, but maybe I just haven’t read enough contemporary lit to know any better. There is a scene where a gangster, named Abelsky, is roughing up someone and he actually makes a cup of coffee in the home of the guy he’s beating up. This ensues:

“You got NutraSweet?” Abelsky repeated. The man said nothing. Abelsky took a mouthful of coffee then spat it back into the cup. “Without NutraSweet, it tastes like shit,” he said. He put the coffee down on the leather desktop. “That OK there? I don’t wanna make a ring.”

I had to laugh, for various reasons.

And O’Neill incorporates Google Maps into the mix a couple of times. Chuck is a gangster and eventually gets murdered sometime after Hans returns to London to reunite with his wife and son. Hans still remembers his pal and one night Hans pulls up Google Maps to locate the cricket field that he was helping Chuck to build:

I veer away into Brooklyn, over houses, parks, graveyards, and halt at olive-green coastal water. I track the shore. Gravesend and Gerritsen slide by, and there is Floyd Bennett Field’s geometric sprawl of runways. I fall again, as low as I can. There’s Chuck’s field. It is brown—the grass has burned—but it is still there.

I found these methods effective and engaging, they make the book timely and approachable. What makes an author bring this stuff up and throw it into the mix? Is O’Neill just a heavy user of NutraSweet so he thought it might be cool to throw it in? He could have said “the blue stuff” or “Equal.”

I really enjoyed it. It’s a relevant character study and it’s about the world we live in now. It’s a great book and moved me more than anything else so far in 2009.