- One of President Obama’s favorite books is Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
When “Netherland” by Joseph O’Neill came out in paperback in 2009 someone from the publishers contacted me seeking my thoughts on the book – I did not respond. I was not happy about the book, as the cricket character, Chuck Ramkissoon, had a foot in the gangster world.
In interviews with various media I’ve also been asked about the book, and finally read it this past week – now I’m glad I had not read it before.
To my astonishment, the writer Joseph O’Neill and one of his characters Chuck Ramkissoon were visionaries, and some of Ramkissoon’s monologues on cricket in America (written 2008 and before) were similar to my own views expressed publicly after I founded American College Cricket in October 2008, and onwards.
Ramkissoon’s emailed speech that begins, ” Cricket was the first modern team sport in America. Cricket has been played in New York since the 1770s……..all those who have attempted to “introduce” cricket to the American public have failed to understand this….etc ” is the truth, and so it is not surprising that I would later make similar points as President of American College Cricket.
Here is what Netherland says about cricket fields in NY :
“a rank outfield that largely undermines the art of batting,which is directed at hitting the ball along the ground with that elegant variety of strokes …….play such orthodox shots in New York and the ball will more than likely halt in the tangled weedy ground cover.
Consequently, the batsman is forced to smash the ball in the air, and batting is turned into a gamble”.
Oddly O’Neill and Ramkissoon seem more clear sighted than the people who actually play the game in the USA – how can they play on these surfaces, without insisting the outfields are better ? Ramkissoon calls it “bush cricket”.
About Cricket in America:
“In this country,we’re nowhere. We’re a joke. Cricket ? How funny. So we play as a matter of indulgence. And if we step out of line, this indulgence disappears”.
“I say we must claim our rightful place in this wonderful country . Cricket has a long history in the United States,actually. Benjamin Franklin himself was a cricket man.”
Ramkissoon quotes statistics that illustrate the huge increase of immigration to New York of people from India, the Caribbean, Pakistan,the West Indies and what this could, and should mean for cricket. I have done the same, and added figures for Universities, for example, in 2009 there were 105,000 students registered as International students from India studying in USA Colleges.
Netherland reads like an autobiography of Hans van den Broek or Joseph O’Neill. O’Neill’s portrayal of New York is superb but his knowledge and grasp of the cricket scene in NY comes from experience.
Bizarrely, though more than 5 years have passed since the time frame covered by the book, cricket has not changed in the area, the fields are still full of overgrown grass and there are no plans for a cricket arena. On the other hand, for years a man named Roy Sweeney has been working the politicians and trying to raise funds and support for a “stadium” at Floyd Bennett Field- perhaps the real life inspiration for Ramkissoon’s dreams ?
The resurrection of Henry Chadwick, “the father of Baseball” is prescient. This summer the National Baseball Hall of Fame Cricket Exhibition reminds Americans of cricket’s role, and Henry Chadwick’s (a cricketer) in developing Baseball.
O’Neill’s description of a cricket pitch is so intimate and evocative that one may have to go back to Neville Cardus or C.L.R James for such magnificent cricket imagery.The way how he uses the pitch to enlighten us about cricket and baseball’s differences is illuminating.
The stream of thought randomness of Netherland allows the Hans to pour out his soul, and he does, as when he says of Ramkissoon :
“My prejudices confined him,….to my exotic cricketing circle,which made no intersection with the circumstances of my everyday life.”
This line is revelatory - it seems to carry a patriarchal racism, that says these non-whites couldn’t possibly make anything of this. As long as cricket in America is not played by “mainstream Americans” (a euphemism for white Americans), it will go nowhere is a prevailing view among many, white and non-white, in and out of the USA.
There seems to be no value attached to the non-white cricket-playing people.One of the strengths of the IPL is its turning on its head this very notion – its no surprise that many speak negatively of it, despite the money and good its done for cricket.
About life in New York post 9/11, love and marriage O’Neill’s writing is insightful and profound. However difficult it is to believe that as hard as he works at his job, Hans could be so apathetic in his personal life - we can be that purposeful in one facet of our lives,something that has meaning to us, whilst we wander aimlessly in everything else.
O’Neill’s understanding of men, and the seemingly superficial way we relate to our best buddies - Rachel couldn’t understand how Hans had never spoke about her with Chuck – we accept each other as presented. He reveals our secret that we do not wish to be reminded of our life “being eaten alive by bosses and clients and all-seeing wives and judgemental offspring”.
This explains the phenomenon of the men going off to play their Sunday cricket, without involving their wives or families - its not because they are selfish, but because they need this stage, to affirm their manhood.
The coming together of Hans and his wife Rachel may seem unrealistic in a time when divorce, usually acrimonious, would be the usual course. But perhaps that’s the surprise, that two people can look beyond the differences, and resolve that they have enough together to continue.
If I had not seen the countless accolades Joseph O’Neill received for this book, I might have assumed that I was biased in believing it to be a great work – because he has written so well about a game I love. But “Netherland’s insights cover the gamut of New York post 9/11, marriage, love and life . Netherland is great literature and a great novel - and authentic enough to be pretty close to non-fiction !