Despite roots in the United States that go back further than either professional baseball or football, Americans tend to be baffled by this most English of sports, leaving it to be practiced by immigrants from other former British colonies (and the occasional Anglophile), as Joseph O’Neill details in his strikingly written new novel, Netherland.
"Every summer the parks of this city are taken over by hundreds of cricketers but somehow nobody notices,” says Chuck Ramkissoon, a volunteer umpire and the unlikely friend of Hans van den Broek, the league’s lone white player. Hans first meets Chuck in 2002, after another player questions one of Chuck’s calls by pulling a gun on him. Hans plays in Walter Park as part of the Staten Island Cricket Club, which, he tells readers, was founded in 1872.
“The playing area was, and I am still sure is, half the size of a regulation cricket field. The outfield is uneven and always overgrown, even when cut ... and whereas proper cricket, as some might call it, is played on a grass wicket, the pitch at Walker Park is made of clay, not turf, and must be covered with coconut matting,” Hans explains. “This degenerate version of the sport – bush cricket, as Chuck more than once dismissed it – inflicts an injury that is aesthetic as much as anything.”
Aesthetics aside, the sport is the lone connection tethering Hans to the outside world in the months after his wife leaves him in the fall of 2001, taking their baby son back to England. The van den Broeks had to evacuate their Tribeca home after the attacks on the World Trade Center, but Rachel makes it clear that it’s not fear making her leave, it’s Hans.
Reeling, Hans hunkers down in a $6,000-a-month apartment at the Hotel Chelsea, among a population of transients, drug dealers, and the occasional film star. “Over half the rooms were occupied by longterm residents who by their furtiveness and ornamental diversity reminded me of the population of the aquarium I’d kept as a child.”
His only visitor is a cross-dressing Turkish angel who lives on a floor above. A Dutch immigrant who came to New York via London, Hans is so lonely that he welcomes the attentions of passing Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Despite his millionaire status as an oil industry analyst, Hans gets adopted by the Indian, Caribbean, and Pakistani members of the Cricket League, who specialize in quietly protecting fellow sportsmen who have fallen on hard times. Chuck, an entrepreneur who is so obviously on the make that Hans is charmed by his transparency, may have other reasons for his interest in the lonely Dutchman.
Ramkissoon has a quixotic dream to build a world-class cricket stadium (he prefers the term “arena”) in New York. “My motto is, Think fantastic,” he intones with pride. (Chuck, formerly from Trinidad, has acquired the unfortunate American habit of talking like a motivational speaker.) Some of Chuck’s other business dealings, Hans discovers over the course of their friendship, are less whimsical.
I’ve had a soft spot for cricket ever since watching “Lagaan,” a Bollywood musical capable of explaining the rules of the game to even the least sports-minded American. This helped balance the instinctive reluctance I feel whenever faced by a Sept. 11 novel.
Happily, “Netherland” doesn’t suffer from the well-meaning grandiosity or ideological self-importance that has sunk so many plots. Instead, it’s a precisely rendered examination of the existential malaise experienced by certain city dwellers after the attacks.
“Tiredness: if there was a constant symptom of the disease in our lives at this time, it was tiredness,” Hans recounts of the days following Sept. 11, 2001. “Mornings we awake into a malign weariness that seemed only to have refreshed itself overnight.”
In addition, it’s a loving depiction of New York as seen through the eyes of a perpetual outsider. (“Sometimes to walk in shaded parts of Manhattan is to be inserted into a Magritte: the street is night while the sky is day.”) Through Chuck, Hans sees a side of New York rarely visible to millionaires; and his own periodic trips to the DMV in a seemingly doomed effort to acquire a driver’s license are comedic brilliance.
Overall, it’s a sad but generous look at the effects of aftermath on a human life, whether one is grappling with a personal tragedy or horror on a grand scale. As Hans blunders through 2002, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for a man who says, “there’s no such thing as cheap longing, I’m tempted to conclude these days, not even if you’re sobbing over a cracked fingernail.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.