ABOVE: Ernest Murrell, right, of the Stamford CC, and Rahul Francois, of St. John’s CC during a friendly last year.
STAMFORD – Sitting at a picnic table in Lione Park, brown bagging a tall-boy as the cricketers in their starched whites ran about the pitch, I couldn’t help but think of Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland.”
The 2008 novel is ostensibly a post-9/11 story of New York, of its citizens grappling with life in the months after the devastating terrorist attacks, but it is so much more than that. The elegant prose is so precise and crafted it is an absolute pleasure to read – a quality all too often forgotten in modern fiction.
Hans van den Broek, the novel’s narrator, is a Dutch financial analyst living in New York with his wife and young son when the attacks of 9/11 force them to move from Lower Manhattan to a residential hotel in Midtown. Unable to cope with this new life, his family returns to Europe without him and the despondent van den Broek seeks friendship and the consolation of familiarity on the cricket pitch.
It is here, on the cricket grounds of the outer boroughs, that he falls in with men from the West Indies and the Asian Subcontinent, revealing a world within New York unseen from his life on Wall Street. With men more familiar with bookmaking than the oil futures market, who suit up in brilliant white and take the field each week for the love of a game that took hold on every island, every colony, every outpost once touched by the British Empire.
Likewise, in Stamford, members of the local cricket clubs gather on the West Side for matches, putting aside national rivalries to play overs on the new synthetic-turf field. Most of the players here hail from Jamaica, Barbados and other island nations, but India, Pakistan and occasionally England, Ireland and Australia are represented. Their national origins are evidenced by the colors on the caps many of the men wear, not officially part of the uniform, yet proudly displayed. In Lione park these men keep alive traditions first formalized in the 18th century.
The world of cricket in “Netherland” is rendered in vivid detail; the slow, humid Sundays of midsummer provide a rich backdrop for the dueling plot lines which explore not only the implosion of van der Broek’s personal life but also the Gatsby-esque tale that unfolds when he befriends a Trinidadian con-man with ambitions to build a world-class cricket stadium on an abandoned airfield in Brooklyn.
Comparisons to the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic – a paragon of American fiction – are not to be taken lightly, but O’Neill’s book stands up to this praise in many ways. O’Neill, Irish by birth, ultimately comes closer to the “Great American Novel,” than most American writers could ever hope.