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'Netherland' Flirts With Greatness Of 'Gatsby'

The strategy is so obvious, so inevitable, you wonder why it took so long for a writer to carry it out. I'm talking about the idea to write a novel about post-Sept. 11 New York City as viewed through the scrim of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is the great American novel about dreaming, overreaching and loss, but many people forget that it's also a great novel about New York City, which stands in for the idea of America in the novel.

Remember that immortal ending where our wistful narrator, Nick Carraway, says that when the "green breast" of the New World — Manhattan — appeared before Dutch sailors' eyes, it was the last time in history when man beheld an object "commensurate with his capacity to wonder"? It's all over, Carraway is saying in that ending — the Age of Discovery, the vision of America as a land of boundless potential, the Roaring Twenties promise of New York City. It's finished, kaput. We live in a permanent state of aftermath. Which is where Joseph O'Neill's marvelous novel Netherland begins.

Our narrator here is, loosely speaking, a latter-day "Dutch sailor" washed up on the ragged shores of lower Manhattan. Hans van den Broek is an equities analyst whose English wife, Rachel, has left him and gone back to England, taking their young son with her. In the shuddering wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Rachel tells Hans that she's been questioning "the narrative of [their] marriage." He, in turn, burrows into a dank apartment in the infamous Chelsea Hotel, longtime home to suicidal rock stars and other desolation angels of the city. Through a fluke encounter with a cab driver, the drifting Hans is drawn into the fraternity of cricket players in New York City.

Hans had played the sport as a child in Holland, but he discovers that in contemporary New York, the leagues are populated by tribes of all nations. His teammates are from Trinidad, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Guyana — Hans, in short, is the only paleface among them. He strikes up a friendship of sorts with an umpire, a Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon. Ramkissoon thinks big: He harbors an ambition to erect a giant state-of-the-art cricket field on the grounds of the derelict Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. The listless Hans gets caught up in this fantasy, but as he becomes more entangled with Ramkissoon, he discovers that, like Jay Gatsby, Chuck Ramkissoon is yet another flowering of that all-American hybrid: the go-getter with the soul of a dreamer disastrously crossed with the brain of a con man.

If you're going to invoke Gatsby as often as O'Neill does in Netherland (and, by the way, catching all those references to ferry boats, Jewish frontmen and death by drowning is, undeniably, part of the insider fun of reading this novel), you'd better be able to acquit yourself honorably against the sheer gorgeousness of Fitzgerald's prose. O'Neill does — and, believe me, I can't think of many novelists I would put within spitting distance of Fitzgerald. O'Neill is a wide-ranging stylist capable of whipping out unexpected but precisely right words like "peregrinating." He's also adroit at muted comedy, as when Hans looks at Ramkissoon's hairy chest and spots "a necklace's gold drool."

But where O'Neill really soars is in his appreciation of the shadowy spaces in and around New York City. Like Fitzgerald, O'Neill is a poet of retrospection — a mood that suits both Hans in his depression and New York City directly after Sept. 11. Hence, we're treated here to haunting descriptions of the aforementioned Floyd Bennett Field, its runways overgrown with grass and ghosts of dashing aviators; Green-Wood Cemetery, with its graves of Tiffanys and Steinways; and even lowly Flatbush Avenue, which Hans describes as being crammed with hole-in-the-wall premises "devoted to the beautification ... of those body parts that continue to thrive after death: ... hair palaces, nail palaces, barbershops, African hair-braiding specialists, [and] wig and hairpiece suppliers ... ."

In the decades since its publication, The Great Gatsby itself has become something of a "green light" for novelists — a literary ideal to be reached for but never quite grasped. O'Neill in Netherland runs faster, stretches out his arms farther and approaches the glow of greatness.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.