I’ve recently finished reading Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, not because of the “Obama bump,” but for an earlier, ecstatically positive review by The New Yorker’s James Wood. I thought the book was good, but certainly not deserving of the breathless praise it has recently received. The overarching metaphor of Cricket, which Wood thought as brilliant a fictional device as those central to Gogol’s Dead Souls, Bellow’s Herzog, and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, is not all that impressive and might be far more imbued with meaning for critic Wood, who is British, and novelist O’Neill, who is Irish. For me, it still remained obtuse and uninteresting, but then again, I was never a fan of any sort of sport, or sports writing (e.g. I didn’t much care for the parts of Don Delillo’s Underworld that dealt with baseball, though I thought the book was brilliant). Aside from that, there was nothing even vaguely surprising about the plot, there were no brilliant bits of prose, and only occasional moving or clever insights.
What appealed to me most about the book had more to do with this particular period in my life than the book’s various merits. I have recently left New York City (I write recently, though I guess it has been almost two months now) and, unfortunately, it seems I won’t be coming back any time soon. I share the narrator’s nostalgia for the city, which is expressed quite well in the opening pages:
Now that I, too, have left that city, I find it hard to rid myself of the feeling that life carries a taint of aftermath.
Though the character is Dutch (hence the title), lives in Manhattan, and works in finance, there are a few intersections between my experience of the city and his, usually in the scenes where he ventures into Brooklyn. For example, at one point he finds himself on the corner of Flatbush and Church (where my local Chase branch and oft-frequented Rite Aid both stand), then ventures further into my neighborhood:
We turned off Church, and in an instant that raucous Caribbean boulevard, with its 99-Cent stores and discount clothing outlets and solo sellers of cocoa butter and its grocery stores displaying yams and green bananas and plantains and cassava and sweet potatoes, had given way to a neighborhood unlike any other I’d seen in New York. Huge old houses – Victorians, I learned to call them – rose on both sides of a grassy mall, each building of a unique character. There was a plantation house with huge neoclassical columns. There was a Germanic place with dark green window frames inhabited, to all appearances, by an evil doctor from a Hitchcock movie. There was a sprawling yellow manor with countless yellow-brick chimneys and, startlingly, there was a Japanese-style mansion with upturned eaves and a cherry tree in photogenic blossom. But most striking of all was the quiet. New York City was here as still as The Hague.
The area described is Buckingham Road (a.k.a East 16th
street, between Church and Albemarle), about a block southeast of my old apartment. I used to go there a lot, while walking the dog, but there is no mention of a bearded Jewish guy walking a hyperactive Puggle. O’Neill also failed to mention the most conspicuous detail regarding the Japanese house
- its shocking bright orange/dark green color combo:
He later mentions an incident that occurs on my street:
In my last American August one thunderstorm followed another…on Marlborough Road, a tree knocked down by lightning flattened an old lady, killing her.
While it seems that this incident, which in the novel takes place in August 2003, is fictional, it is eerily similar to something that occurred in August 2007, when a storm (some would say, a tornado
) hit Brooklyn, uprooting a tree on Marlborough Road, a few houses south of my apartment (No old ladies were killed, though; O’Neill, you sick bastard!).
It’s possible that the novel, published in 2008, was at least partially written in 2007, and this actual incident was gently massaged to fit the narrative. Again, no mention of me or the dog, maybe because I only moved there in 2005, and influenced the area, and New York at large, so profoundly that O’Neill knew his readers would immediately do the math and reject his novel for being so shoddily anachronistic. Maybe not.
P.S. In case you're confused about the title of this post, ProPSo is the über-trendy nickname I invented for my neighborhood, Prospect Park South. Use it; cherish it.