Uh-oh, there's a new novel by Joseph O'Neill -- that means we're headed for some kind of global calamity. "My first novel came out just as the first Gulf War was starting, then my memoir Blood-Dark Track was published a few weeks after 9/11," O'Neill explains. With the publication of Netherland, his third novel, he's not predicting anything quite as drastic. "We've got an economic meltdown," he says. "Isn't that enough?"
The clashing of global events with his publishing schedule might be inconvenient, but it's oddly appropriate. O'Neill's books tend to be about "how we position ourselves in relation to the great political narratives of our times" he says. In Blood-Dark Track, for example, he wrote about his two grandfathers -- one Irish, one Turkish -- who both spent time in prison during World War II for activities that threatened national interests. "It turns out that the individual conscience is frail," O'Neill says with a rueful smile.
In Netherland, he has tackled the defining historical event of his own lifetime -- 9/11. The frail individual here is Hans, a Dutch banker who, after the Twin Towers fall, retreats into a state of limbo at the Chelsea Hotel. Abandoned by his wife and son, Hans wanders the city in a state of emotional paralysis until an afternoon on Staten Island, when he stumbles upon a diverse cricket league made of doormen and taxi drivers. Striking up a friendship with umpire Chuck Ramkissoon, a charismatic Trinidadian, Hans discovers a different New York, one that forces him to define his own moral boundaries.
The half-Irish, half-Turkish, Holland-raised O'Neill writes compellingly about the complex, multi-ethnic stew of the city's non-white enclaves. He too has played as the only white on a multi-ethnic Staten Island cricket team, and it's made him impatient with people whose curiosity stops at the borders of their zip code. "If George W. Bush was interested in cricket, everything might be different," he says, shaking his head sadly. Luckily, there's still time for the 2008 presidential candidates to learn the beauty of a bat and a wicket.