The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel of the 1920s, has long been the leading literary voice on the American Dream. Now, over eighty years later, a novel has arrived which brings the tales of Nick Carraway and Daisy Buchanan into the modern era. Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill, is mesmerizing: at once penetrating in his criticism and poignant in his tenderness, O’Neill invites his readers to share his vision of the omnipresent myth of America, as relevant today as it was to Jay Gatsby nearly a century ago.
Netherland follows the story of the Dutchman Hans van den Broek and the episode of his life he spends in New York City. His wife Rachel gets a job at a law firm in New York and Hans follows, taking his infant son Jake and immigrating to America. Only months after they arrive, the events of September 11 throw Hans’ world into a spiral. His family is forced to leave their loft apartment and to take up residence in the Chelsea Hotel, an extended-stay hotel occupied by a host of characters ranging from drug dealers to famous playwrights. While there, Rachel reveals to Hans that she is leaving, going to London with Jake, and that she doesn’t want him to follow. Hans is left alone in a foreign city, a son across the ocean, and a suddenly empty life.
Into this void enter two distractions, one by way of the other. Hans begins playing cricket at a local park, and through the game he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a native of Trinidad who lives in New York. Hans strikes up an unlikely friendship with the charismatic Trinidadian, who shares Hans’ love of cricket and introduces him to a world outside of his white collar, nine-to-five life as a stock analyst. Whether he is discussing his childhood in Trinidad, waxing poetic about the glories of his adopted country, or giving him cricket advice (“this is America: hit the ball in the air, man”), Chuck takes Hans and makes a friend out of him. Hans admits that although “(Chuck’s) deviousness was transparent, it alternated with an immigrant’s credulousness,” a combination which he finds “oddly soothing.”
Using the voice of the erudite, reflective narrator, O’Neill shows his readers the realities of life in Chuck Ramkissoon’s New York City. Successful, ambitious, gregarious, and entrepreneurial, Chuck is also clearly something of a shady character. A stop by a client’s house to collect a debt, the roughing up of an acquaintance’s office, the disclosure of unidentified “business ventures” … Chuck is, for O’Neill, an incarnation of New York itself: brash, quick-talking, big-dreaming, and under the surface, deeply flawed. Even his self-proclaimed motto—“think fantastic”—sounds gimmicky, like a Sony marketing slogan on a billboard in Times Square.
After two years in New York, which he describes as “the only time he’d ever been unhappy,” Hans makes the decision to move to London to be close to his son and wife, whom he has realized he still loves. His life improves upon leaving; he sees his son daily and his wife’s lover leaves her, opening an opportunity for Hans to win her back. He is successful, and the reunited family moves into a house together and starts their life anew. But New York has one more parting shot for Hans. After returning to London, he is informed one day that Chuck Ramkissoon is dead; his body has been discovered in the Gowanus Canal.
Eloquent and audacious, gritty and emotional, Netherland is a worthy successor to one of the great twentieth century novels. O’Neill gives us a view of the image of New York, the city, according to the narrator, where making money “was essentially a question of walking down the street — of strolling, hands in pockets, in the cheerful expectation that sooner or later a bolt of pecuniary fire would jump out of the atmosphere and knock you flat.” But O’Neill ultimately rejects that vision, choosing instead the image embraced by Chuck—a “dog eat dog, no holds barred” arena where dreams are made, and lost.
After working in Washington, D.C., for two years, Andrew Orlebeke (’10) is in graduate school in Seattle, Washington, studying public policy. In addition to public service, he has a passion for traveling and an abiding love of sports.