O’Neill’s Netherland Does Cricket Justice
Well, I’ve finally gone ahead and done it. I’ve read Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a novel that many a well-meaning friend has urged on me, knowing of my love for cricket.
It has been a very long time (long enough to be not remembered by me) that a mainstream work of literature in the US has featured cricket so prominently. And to O’Neill’s credit he does not describe cricket as an outsider, but rather with the knowing touch of someone that has played the game. So he does not trade in the tired old American lies about the game: that it is quaint, archaic, tepid, and lacking in dynamism.
He does a good job of describing the skills of the game, the particular hold it exercises upon its players and spectators, and importantly, he acknowledges (even if only briefly) the international side of the game, one that is as different from the version played on American parks as a high school softball game is from major league baseball.
But the best parts of O’Neill’s description of cricket have to do with his locating it in a specifically American context: the flourishing leagues in New York City. As such, what makes Netherland singular is that it is about cricket as played in a non-cricketing country and as experienced by someone who has grown up in a marginal cricketing country (the Netherlands; for Hans, the protagonist of the novel, is a Dutchman).
This location of the game, and the choice of the narrative voice, allows the novel to engage in an extended commentary about immigrant communities and multi-culturalism within the context of a community formed around cricket in New York City. In doing so, Netherland manages to be both a classic New York City, and a cricket, novel.
There are no extended descriptions of games, no cliches about how the protagonist saves or wins a game. Instead, the focus is often largely on action off the field, sometimes on the “Field of Dreams” hopes of the enterprising Trinidadian Chuck Ramkissoon, Hans’ new-found friend, and sometimes on the bonding that the game affords to a bunch of men condemned to be sporting exiles in their new home in the US. Hans does not appear to be obsessed about international cricket scores; he is concerned mainly, with playing the game, partly to assuage the loneliness of the jilted lover, partly to reconnect with his Dutch childhood, and partly, to re-establish the kind of physical connection that a great game can build with us.
In doing all this, O’Neill has managed to write a very good sports novel. Even if you don’t know anything about cricket, but count yourself a sports fan, you owe it to yourself to read this book. The feelings Hans describes for his game are familiar ones; they are the ones that keep the world of sports ticking.
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