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Why Obama Is Reading "Netherland" (And Why You Should Too)

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After having finished Netherland, I can see why President Obama added it to his reading list. Aside from being extraordinarily well-written, it's a paean to multiculturalism, something that might interest a biracial liberal Democrat with a foreign-sounding name. A literary tonic for the juvenile chauvinism of the Bush years, Netherland embraces the cultural consequences of globalization while honoring the uniqueness of the American experience.

Don't be fooled by the author's bland moniker: when it comes to borderlessness, Joseph O'Neill knows whereof he speaks. Born to an Irish father and a Turkish mother, he grew up in Mozambique, South Africa, Iran, and Holland. He practiced law in England for several years and then moved to New York City, where much of his novel takes place. His narrator is Hans van der Broek, a Dutchman with a seemingly perfect life: he's a young, tall, good-looking millionaire banker married to a smart and sexy English lawyer. But this carefully constructed edifice begins to topple after 9/11. With their lower Manhattan loft off limits, Hans and his family set up a temporary home at the Chelsea Hotel. Fearing another attack, his increasingly distant wife soon flees to London with their son. Months later, lonely and adrift, Hans is receptive to a cab driver's suggestion to join the Staten Island Cricket Club.

In the ensuing pages, you will learn more about this sport than you ever imagined. However, to say that Netherland is about cricket is like saying Moby Dick is about whaling or Howards End is about real estate. Cricket is a form of athletic diplomacy, a means of suspending, if only for a few hours, longstanding ethnic rivalries. Hans' teammates are from Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and every other spot formerly belonging to the British empire. After his first game at the club, he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a shady yet charismatic Trinidadian who dreams of correcting America's blinkered vision by making cricket as popular here as baseball. Critics have compared the relationship between Hans and Chuck to that of Nick Carroway and Jay Gatsby, with cricket standing in for Daisy Buchanan and a Russian mafioso as an updated version of Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby's gangster mentor. But Chuck reminded me more of Saul Bellow's reality instructors, those smooth-talking sharpies who impart dubious wisdom to thoughtful heroes in the grip of emotional and spiritual crises.

As Hans is put through his paces, O'Neill gives us a tour of the city, with special emphasis on its Babel-like characteristics. Here, for example, is the old Tin Pan Alley quarter: "Arabs, West Africans, African Americans hung out on the sidewalks among goods trucks, dollies, pushcarts, food carts heaped with trash, boxes and boxes of merchandise. I might have been in a cold Senegal." But unlike Tom Wolfe, O'Neill never assumes a condescending or alarming tone. Behold your future, he's simply telling us. Despite the ravings of Pat Buchanan, Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and that ideological Tourette's sufferer Sean Hannity, nothing can stop this insistent heterogeneity. As Chuck says, "In New Jersey they're overrun with South Asians . . . And if you think they're coming to mop floors and drive taxis, you're wrong. They're coming to make real money---high tech, pharmaceuticals, electronics, health care." The time is approaching when this disparate assembly of minorities will be acknowledged as the new majority.

But I don't want to give the impression that O'Neill is a polemicist. Whatever message he wishes to convey, it's subordinate to the demands of art. Like other writers with a polyglot background, such as Conrad, Nabokov, and Tom Stoppard, he enjoys playing with the English language; his sentences are gorgeously constructed, sleek and serpentine. On the aftermath of 9/11, for example: "We were trying to understand, that is, whether we were a preapocalyptic situation, like the European Jews in the thirties or the last citizens of Pompeii, or whether our situation was merely near-apocalyptic, like that of the Cold War inhabitants of New York, London, Washington, and, for that matter, Moscow." Or this metaphorical gem, describing Hans' bereftness: "My family, the spine of my days, had crumbled. I was lost in invertebrate time." In the seven years he worked on this novel, O'Neill downloaded the contents of his insatiable mind. Along with cricket, we learn about equities tradiing, Caribbean cooking, hunting iguanas, mowing outfields, brushing horses and many other things that you will find either trivial or fascinating.

Netherland was published last year, before Obama took office, but it's the perfect novel for this (cross your fingers) hopeful era we find ourselves in.