Several reviewers of the hardcover edition of Netherland have compared Chuck Ramkissoon, the Caribbean-born bulwark of this tremendously satisfying novel, to Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. Ramkissoon is indeed Gatsby, although in O’Neill’s dystopian vision of a post-9/11 New York City, he has to settle for something vastly scaled down.
The narrator, Hans van den Broek, first meets Ramkissoon in a cricket match on Staten Island. In a set piece that is marvelous not only in its lapidary prose but also in its parsimony in drawing up a vivid profile of Caribbean expatriates in the city, Broek is intrigued by Ramkissoon, his background, and his dreams of monetizing cricket in New York. When Ramkissoon is found dead - ostensibly murdered - Broek, by now in England trying to patch things up with his estranged wife, attempts to make sense of the man’s life.
Readers looking for a neatly structured novel with a clear opening, middle, and end are likely to be disappointed. There is not much of a story line; rather, there is a string of memorable incidents and characters, all joined together to limn the vicissitudes of Broek’s life - as a financial trader, as a husband and father, and as a lover of the game of cricket. O’Neill draws us deeply to Broek and the people he meets by the strength of his writing. He is a master at observing the mundane, such as an encounter that Broek has with an immigration officer in New York City, and in using it to subtly draw plausible characterizations.
This is a book to be savored, both for its writing and for its content. Not least of all, it is to be savored for introducing us to the irrepressible Chuck Ramkissoon.