Book Review

Provocative novel follows a NYC transplant after 9/11

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Carlo Wolff
May 26, 2008

By Joseph O'Neill
Pantheon, 256 pp., $23.95

"Netherland," Joseph O'Neill's fine, darkly glowing novel about New York after 9/11, examines the city through the discerning, wary eyes of Hans van den Broek, its key protagonist.

Phlegmatic Dutchman van den Broek, a financial analyst who finds his fortune but nearly loses his marriage in Manhattan, is the native of a country vulnerable to flooding - as, O'Neill implies, New York is vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Van den Broek lives not only between countries but also between heaven (New York before 9/11) and hell (New York immediately after). He also feels like one of the early Dutch settlers of Manhattan, originally a sylvan place like parts of upstate New York, and The Hague in Holland, where he spent part of his youth.

At the same time, traveling between London, to which his wife Rachel and son Jake repair after the terrorist attacks, and New York, van den Broek feels like a man without a country. Displacement threatens to rule him.

Fortunately, he finds anchor in Manhattan: at the famously diverse Chelsea Hotel, where he lives; at work; and in the company of other immigrants, like the Sri Lankans and Jamaicans with whom he plays cricket and, especially, with Chuck Ramkissoon. Ramkissoon is a shadowy life force dedicated to cricket and "weh-weh," an informal system of illegal gambling he imports to New York from his native Trinidad.

"Think fantastic," the wily Ramkissoon tells van den Broek, suggesting they collaborate in developing the New York Cricket Club on a field in Brooklyn. In joining Ramkissoon in this plan, van den Broek rediscovers his capacity for wonder. He also enters a milieu of extortion and flim-flam occupied by the likes of Mike Abelsky, Ramkissoon's partner.

Here, they meet in a Coney Island bathhouse: "The heat was extreme. I sweated heavily and without pleasure. I was about to suggest to Chuck that we leave when an unusual-looking man came in. He was fat, and yet great folds of excess skin wilted from his stomach and back and limbs. He looked unstuffed, an abandoned work of taxidermy.

"Chuck said, 'Mikhail! What a surprise. Come, sit down.'

"Mike Abelsky joined us with a great sigh. He said to me, in a strong accent that was part Brooklyn and part Moldova, 'You're the Dutch guy. I heard about you. You,' he said, pointing at Chuck, 'I wanna talk to.'

" 'We're taking a bath,' Chuck said. 'Relax.' "

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, van den Broek regards New York as the new world. But after 9/11, this world is, sadly, all grown up, and newly defined by terror. Its phantasmagorical condition perfectly reflects our troubled, sensitive narrator.

As van den Broek slip-slides among locales and states of mind, he stumbles onto his own assertiveness and reclaims a sense of family nearly sundered by an affair that Rachel has with a celebrity chef in London.

Almost despite himself, van den Broek salvages his marriage. What happens to Ramkissoon remains a mystery, like several other threads in this provocative, luminous book. At the end, however, van den Broek seems stable. And even if he can't quite define what gives life its meaning, he senses that the promise of New York, which he and his family view with fresh eyes from the Staten Island ferry, may be enough.

Carlo Wolff is a Cleveland-based freelance writer.

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