Underground Men


by Joseph O’Neill
Pantheon, 256 pp., $23.95

What is “Netherland,” the strange-but-familiar compound that Joseph O’Neill has made the title of his captivating new novel? At its plainest, perhaps, it’s a singular bit of the Netherlands, the country from which the narrator, Hans van den Broek, arrived in the late 1990s, via London, as an equities analyst for a major New York bank. That orderly, tolerant, “providential” country, seen on a map with “its streamer of northern isles” like “a land steaming seaward,” is the deep field of Hans’s memories. The only child of a mother widowed when he was two, he is haunted by scenes from his Dutch childhood and adolescence, which seem to hold the key to his reserved, retentive personality and strangely passive behavior.

But the title touches too on his westward landfall, centuries after the first of his countrymen, in the city that was once New Amsterdam, in the Dutch province of New Netherland. Netherland is a novel of immigrants, not just in the way that any New York novel is likely to be, but as a mesh and blur of displacements and belongings.Once Hans’s wife Rachel, an English barrister, has gone back to London, petrified by the fall of the Twin Towers and the depredations of Bush’s America, what we see of Hans’s life in the city is a sequence of random collisions, of uncertain significance, among people with the story of other places behind them—whether the sad deranged Turk at the Chelsea Hotel who walks the streets in angel wings, or the polyglot members of the Staten Island cricket team, who “variously originated from Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.”Above all it is the story of his dreamlike, Gatsbyesque friendship with a businessman called Chuck Ramkissoon, a shady but charismatic Indian from Trinidad, whose mission is to bring world-class cricket to a Brooklyn field, and thence to broadcast it to the planet.

With a little fricative blur, of course, Netherland is Neverland, the place where such dreams may come about.And the American Neverland has worked, in its way, for Hans: he’s very successful (his professional life we take on trust, on the strength of a few office vignettes—it’s not what really interests him); and he’s clearly pretty rich, beneficiary of the years when it seemed that

making a million bucks in New York was essentially a question of walking down the street—of strolling, hands in pockets, in the cheerful expectation that sooner or later a bolt of pecuniary fire would jump out of the atmosphere and knock you flat.

But those bountiful years are hidden away in one of the little-examined folds of the narrative, before the events of September 11, before Rachel’s flight back to London, taking their young son Jake with her.

So the netherland emerges as the dark reverse of the dream, not the whole large hell of the netherworld—the novel’s natural good taste and Dutch containment are alert against any hint of the grandiose—but a personal province of it, which is one…

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