by Joseph O'Neill
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
With summer on its way, let's curl up with a novel that deals with that
great American sport . . . cricket.
Cricket! you exclaim. What's American about that?
But listen to Chuck Ramkissoon, the flamboyant
West Indian at the center of Joseph O'Neill's recent
novel Netherland, and he will set you straight.
"Cricket was the first modern team sport in America,"
Ramkissoon explains. "It came before baseball and
football. Cricket has been played in New York since
the 1770s . . . Cricket matches were watched by
thousands of fans. It was a professional sport
reported in all the newspapers. There were clubs
all over the country. . . So it is wrong to see cricket
in America as most people see it . . . an immigrant
sport. It is a bona fide American pastime."
If your eyes are already glazing over at this, you may want to pass on
Netherland, with its Field of Dreams celebration of Yankee cricket.
Perhaps you (like me) have been stuck at dinner or, even worse, on a
long flight, next to a cricket enthusiast, who will quote every statistic
and will elaborate, ad nauseam, on the differences between a bouncer
and a bunsen, a flipper and a floater. And did you ever hear about
Dennis Lillee and Javed Miandad in 1981 . . .
Hey, wake up! No matter if your favorite cricket was Pinocchio's sidekick,
you may want to give this novel a chance. Even I got caught up in
Ramkissoon's plans to convert an old airfield into the New York Cricket
Club, with two thousand members shelling out a grand each in dues,
plus initiation fees; twelve exhibition matches every summer, with eight
thousand fans paying fifty bucks per ticket. Just dream for a moment:
India playing Pakistan in New York, with 70 million watching via TV and
Internet in India alone, and Nike and Coke lining up for sponsorship
But Ramkissoon, the mastermind of this scheme, is not everything he
seems. Netherland is written from the perspective of stock analyst and
weekend cricketeer, Hans van den Broek, a hopelessly passive
spectator on his own life, who is charmed by these plans, but soon
discovers unsavory sides to his new friend. In short, not everything
about Ramkissoon is quite cricket, as they say.
Van den Broek's own life is in disarray. His wife leaves him, and moves
with their only son to London. He has no close friends, and spends his
time with oddball neighbors, most notably a strange Turkish man who
likes who dress up like an angel, wings and all. In the great tradition of
American narrators, from Nick Carraway (in The Great Gatsby) to Augie
March, Hans get swept away by the dreams of others, ignoring all the
warning signs that a more skeptical participant (not to mention the
readers themselves) would quickly observe.
As a result, the great cricket novel gradually turns into something
darker and more multi-layered. Van den Broek drifts apart from his
friend and decides to move to London, and though he is rewarded by
renewed hopes for his marriage, he continues to wonder about his
cricket-loving companion. Ramkissoon, for his part, gets caught up in a
downward spiral. A sports novel seems to be turning into a crime story.
Yet our novelist is cagey and never provides us with all the details.
Chuck Ramkissoon will eventually disappear from the book's page,
leaving behind many unanswered questions. Yet he is a brilliantly
conceived character, and his presence alone gives life to a novel that,
without this one spark, might strike most of us Yanks as more tedious
than a three day test match.