Books: Joseph O'Neill's Novel 'Netherland'

It wasn't until after I'd finished "Netherland," Joseph O'Neill's outstanding new novel, that I realized I'd been reading about cricket, which suddenly felt like I'd read a book in a language I've never studied. Cricket, of course, isn't the central concern: the staid field sport is the wormhole through which Hans, our anti-hero, passes to discover an alternate (but very real) New York City and to recognize (if not quite overcome) the ennui that has driven his wife back to her native London with their little boy. It is an essential expression of otherness—embodied by the sport and the people who play it. In fact, "Netherland"'s preoccupation is otherness. And while it might seem like the exemplars of this quality are the ethnic minorities and immigrants who populate Hans's cricket team, the real question lurking behind them is about gender otherness: what does it mean to be a man who doesn't inhabit the typical male archetype? And does that archetype even exist?

Hans's wife, Rachel, is seized with paranoia in the months after September 11, when the family has evacuated their downtown apartment. The sentiment feels familiar to those who lived in Gotham after the attacks. But although Rachel lives here (she is a lawyer; he an investment banker), she is an outsider—she becomes estranged both from her husband, who, in recent years, has ceased to relate to her beyond the rote motions of marriage, and from what she sees as America's jingoistic response, which she at first uses as cover to leave him.

Friendless and adrift in New York, Hans chats with his taxi driver and emerges with directions to a cricket club on Staten Island. The teammates and opponents he meets represent a New York seldom present in literary novels set here: Indians, Trinidadians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis. He is the only white man in any of his weekly tests, which are punctuated with tea, curries and booze. On the field, as in everyday life, his teammates are outsiders: they are forced by the Parks Department to await the conclusion of weekend-warrior softball games played on their 130-year-old Staten Island cricket pitch.

In fact, nearly everyone in "Netherland" is an outsider. The cricketers are the businessmen, gamblers, service workers and taxi drivers who fill Brooklyn and Queens, and they are why Hans—raised in the Hague—finally begins to feel at home in New York. Yet while Hans's Commonwealth friends are hardly caricatures, they are not multidimensional men whose motives and desires are plain to us. O'Neill is peering at this other New York, which is a nice change in a literary novel, but his view is little more than impressionistic. All but one of the immigrants are merely passing through the narrative.

The truly penetrating study of otherness is Hans's masculinity. O'Neill undermines the conventional notion of manhood while allowing Hans to embody the shallow qualities that are its markers: he has trouble emoting, he is a self-confident blowhard at work. It is that rare feat: a likeness that is instantly recognizable without a whiff of cliché.

As his marriage begins to falter, Hans defies the male stereotype (which Rachel has nonetheless imputed to him) of rationalism and action. Their union inverts the roles that, in their world, are seen as normal. Hans fumbles on the phone during the spring of 2003 trying to explain why America isn't the big bad hegemon she thinks (and why, therefore, she should return). Rachel lunges for the jugular, comparing the imminent invasion of Iraq to Hitler's invasion of Russia—outings to oust bad men waged by bad men. Reductio ad Hitlerum, he protests, feeling for a toehold. She easily waves him off: "Hitler is just an extreme example. You use extreme examples to test a proposition. It's called reasoning. That's how you reason. You make a proposition and you follow it to its logical conclusion."

Later, she becomes his protector. At a dinner party in London, Hans demands a retraction from an excitable guest who says September 11 wasn't really a big deal. When the boor expresses faux contrition, Hans storms out. The guest appeals to Rachel—and, implicitly, to the Englishness they share and Hans does not—to see reason, but she tells him to piss off and follows her husband out. She is a model of assertiveness next to his airiness: "My difficulty," he narrates, "was that I could not disarrange the boundless, freezing dismay that undermined every personal motion I attempted. It was as if, in my inability to produce a movement in my life, I had fallen victim to the paralysis that confounds actors in dreams as they vainly try to run or talk or make love."

Chuck Ramkissoon is O'Neill's main immigrant figure—a Trinidadian umpire whom we first meet staring down a gun-wielding drunkard whose teammate Ramkissoon ejected for bad sportsmanship. He is an autodidact, a cunning entrepreneur—his latest venture, to popularize cricket in America, harnesses an outsider's means for an insider's end—and Hans's main companion in America. Ramkissoon is the apotheosis of manhood. And still he is onto the real state of things: "We're the romantic sex, you know," he tells Hans, "Men. We're interested in passion, glory. Women are responsible for the survival of the world."

Even when he knows he is supposed to experience a moment of gravity, Hans is untethered. On a business trip to discuss oil stocks—his specialty—with investors in Scottsdale, Ariz., he blithely follows three bald-headed hedge-fund analysts to a casino and gets sozzled. His wife has just called it quits; he is at his lowest point. And yet when he wanders into landscape-perfect desert vista outside a restaurant—an invitation for introspection, he can tell—his mind wanders off to "recollections, for the first time in years, of Lucky Luke, the cartoon-strip cowboy" of his boyhood.

O'Neill has nailed the male idiom of mournfulness. It is hollow, listless and solitary—exactly the opposite of the hand-wringing, garment-rending theatricality of, say, "Swingers." All along, Hans has reason to believe that Ramkissoon is not the paragon of Protestant ethics that he conveys to the world. So when Hans makes this confession to Rachel, after Ramkissoon is found murdered, she wonders why he never confronted Ramkissoon about the man's shady business dealings.

"I'm tempted to point out that our dealings, however unusual and close, were the dealings of businessmen," Hans tells us. "My ease with this state of affairs no doubt reveals a shortcoming on my part, but it's the same quality that enables me to thrive at work, where so many of the brisk, tough, successful men I meet are secretly sick to their stomachs about their quarterlies, are being eaten alive by bosses and clients and all-seeing wives and judgmental offspring, and are, in sum, desperate to be taken at face value and very happy to reciprocate the courtesy. This chronic and, I think, peculiarly male strain of humiliation explains the slight affection that bonds so many of us, but such affectation depends on a certain reserve. Chuck observed the code, and so did I; neither pressed the other on delicate subjects."

"Netherland" feels a little pat as it winds down. O'Neill ushers Hans and his wife through abortive relationships and reunites them happily. But there's no moralizing here: although Hans is eventually seized by a go-get-her-back urge, it is too late. He worms his way back into Rachel's life only passively and somewhat coincidentally—just by being around when she needs someone. So he never discovers some miracle cure for languor: the only way out of Hans's melancholy is through it. And he emerges into a more complicated kind of manhood than we're used to seeing. In that way, "Netherland" is a coming-of-middle-age tale.