To an outsider, New York is always extravagant, with its speeding cabs, its hubristic architecture, its melange of languages and multifarious tribes, each as distinctive as the Algonquians who sold Manhattan Island to the Dutch in 1629.
But after Sept. 11, 2001, the city's cheery surreality gave way to apocalyptic anticipation, as if it were Rome waiting to be overrun by the Visigoths.
A promising milieu for fiction, in other words. Some of the big boys of contemporary literature — Ian McEwan, Don Delillo, Jonathan Safran Foer — have produced flashy 9/11 novels, though Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children beats them all in Dickensian scope and wit.
Now along comes Joseph O'Neill with a subtler, quieter tale of New York after the towers fell. Elegant, luminous and moving, Netherland tells the story of a shaken city, an imploding marriage and a man's struggle to connect with fellow human beings.
Hans van den Broek is a Dutch equities analyst for a merchant bank, married to Rachel, an English corporate lawyer. They have transferred to Manhattan to experience, as Rachel says, "this great New York lifestyle," complete with a loft in Tribeca and more money than they know what to do with.
But when the World Trade Center is attacked, their glossy world disintegrates. Hans and Rachel find themselves refugees from Lower Manhattan, camping in the Chelsea Hotel with their young son Jake.
After months of blank-eyed anxiety, Rachel announces she wants to take Jake back to London. New York isn't safe. Terrorists could attack again, maybe hit the nuclear reactor at Indian Point. Besides, she tells Hans, "You've abandoned me."
Hans is one of those guys who doesn't ask too many questions, lest the answers take him to some difficult emotional place. He is, he says, "given to self-estrangement." Puzzled as to why his wife wants to put 3,000 miles between them and confused by her growing anger at George Bush's "ideologically diseased" America, he lies in bed eating pizza, isolated. His bank colleagues think he should take up golf; instead Hans returns to an exotic childhood love, cricket.
Though cricket is big time in the large chunk of the world which comprises the old British Empire, its sun now firmly set, for Americans it's a combination of the exotic and the impenetrable: the back and forth runs, the terminology (maidens? googlies?), the tea break, for God's sake.
In O'Neill's deft hands, cricket becomes a well-wrought metaphor for an unknown history (Benjamin Franklin played cricket) and an invisible population. As one character points out, there are 150 cricket clubs in New York. Most of them are made up of Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Guyanans, West Indians and other people of color playing in scruffy parks a long way from the satiny green grass of Lord's.
At Hans' first match, he encounters the presiding genius of sandlot cricket, a Trinidadian called Khamraj "Chuck" Ramkissoon, speechifying on class, race and cricket:
"It doesn't matter that cricket is the biggest, fastest-growing bat-and-ball game in the world. None of it matters. In this country we're nowhere ... . Sometimes I tell people, You want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketer. Put on white to feel black."
Fascinated by Chuck, Hans falls through the Looking Glass into a New York he never imagined, a "netherland" of dubious business deals and double lives far from the high-rise world of Wall Street. Chuck presides over Hans' sentimental education, guiding him through the lowlands of the outer boroughs. Chuck's motto is "think fantastic," and boy, does he, with plans to build New York's first cricket stadium, plus bring about world peace while he's at it: "People, all people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilized when they're playing cricket."
Hans, longing for Rachel and Jake, takes to looking at their London house on Google Earth, as if he can watch over them somehow, as the Gatsbyesque Chuck expands his world and complicates his understanding of other people.
O'Neill is one smart novelist, slyly constructing Hans as a Henry James innocent, only this naive protagonist is not an American yahoo encountering European sophistication but a European lost in the imperial city of the 21st century, trying to navigate its tricky ethics, sexual conventions and social intricacies.
Like one of those deceptively simple landscape paintings by Bruegel the Elder, Netherland contains multitudes of meaning. O'Neill writes sentences as if he's cutting diamonds, each phrase shining, each word chosen for sharpness and color. The result is a beautiful, haunting gem
Diane Roberts, professor of creative writing at FSU, is the author of "Dream State."