Thursday, June 25, 2009

Book of the Year - so far


Joseph O'Neill.

Joseph O'Neill is an Irish lawyer living in New York. "Netherland" tell the story of a cricket-playing expat Dutch banker who moved to New York shortly after 9/11.

I never thought I'd see those five words in conjunction: cricket-playing expat Dutch banker. But that's what Hans van den Broek is: he points out that cricket's been played in the Netherlands since the early 1800s - and that, in fact, cricket was a hugely popular sport in the USA in earlier times. There are, in fact, a numbe of cricket clkubs in New York, although the facilities are far from being the best. However, with a Caribbean population close to a million, New York would seem to be a breeding ground for a resurgence of the game.

But cricket itself, while important to the ethos of the novel, is almost incidental: O'Neill uses cricket as a McGuffin to delve into the heart of his baffled protagonist, who is struggling with the dissolution and resurrection of his marriage. Cricket is used as a metaphor for both New York and England (where Hans was living before moving to NYC with his English wife and child). The events of 9/11 are also a side-show, and are used mainly to provide a surface reason for Hans' wife, Rachel, to return to London.

The book goes a long way to dispelling the mythof the sturdy, stodgy Dutchman. Hans is introspective, yes, but certainly not a clog-footed plodder. And he is a technician with a cricket bat.

"Netherland" is not a particularly easy read. There's an idea and beauty in each sentence that means the reader must read, and re-read at least one paragraph on every page.

But O'Neill's writing is transcendant. The pages fairly glow with the luminescence of his words. Grace, beauty, and charm rub shoulders in every phrase.

I'll share one sentence with you, taken from a passage in which Hans is discussing the difference a poor American outfield makes to the game: "This degenrate version of the sport - bush cricket, as Chuck more than once dismissed it - inflicts an injury that is aesthetic as much as anything: the American adaptation is devoid of the beauty of cricket played on a lawn of appropriate dimensions, where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison towards the batsman and again and again scatter back to to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors."

The book is at once a love story, a drama, a social commentary, a murder story, and a cultural comparison. It's sublime.

LISTENING TO: Well, the radio. Early in the morning, and Jenny's still asleep. But I do think I'll be listening to Pink Floyd a little later.

READING: Dan Simmon's "Hyperion", until it's finished. I've read this book at least a dozen times: it is, in many ways, a modern Pilgrim's Progress - and a critiquing of Keats' famous poem of the same name. Dreamy, vicious, and altogether stunning, it's hard science fiction mixed with a liberal dash of religious mockery. Lovely.

WORD OF THE DAY: Snaffle. We don't hear this word often these days, and it's such a brilliant sound. Snaffle - to take, surreptitiously.

Henry continues....

Chapter Three.
The Art of Being Slower Than a Speeding Bullet.

Getting shot in Northridge is, under normal circumstances, quite extraordinarily difficult to accomplish, and, to tell the truth, Henry hadn’t been looking to be one of the few Northridgians to bear the distinction of being a plugee.
Here’s how it happened.
Henry has been closeted with Joseph Know for half an hour, looking at the black and white pictures of the interior of his lungs and head. The conversation they’ve had is intense, and more than a little bewildering. It seems that Doctor Know suspects that Henry has a cancerous tumour in his lung, or at least a shadow which could well be a cancerous tumour, one which has which has spawned a related growth deep within his brain.
“But wouldn’t I have been in pain, Joseph? How can this thing, these things, grow inside of me without me knowing?”
“Cancer’s not always painful, Henry. In the latter stages, yes, many cancers do call for an intense pain management regime, but in the earlier stages – it’s as individual as your fingerprints. There’s often no telling. This one here, in your lung, the readers of the C.A.T. scan runes tell me that’s probably been growing for a couple of years.”
“Why didn’t they pick it up last time, then?’
“Too small. A tiny cluster of cells. And you’ve had no blood tests. I haven’t even seen you in the past two years. Professionally, that is. Apart from this potentially life-threatening shadow, you’re as healthy as a horse.”
“Six months, you reckon.”
“It could be a year, it could be – look, I’m just a G.P. you really need to see an oncologist. I’ve set up an appointment with Lake, Arthur Lake, up at Green Lane. Day after tomorrow. He’s really very good, an old friend, and –“
“But Mary, Joseph! Mary! Jesus!”
“Look. This may be a storm in a latte cup, it may be nothing. It could be a glitch in the machine.”
“But you don’t think so.”
“No. It needs looking into, straight away. Yesterday’s too late, Henry. Mary will be all right. You’ll not be doing her any favours if you –“
Yes, yes. All very well for you to say, Joseph, but I’ll be leaving Mary. I can’t. I mean, I can’t! I can’t leave Mary, she’s, her, she –
A strange panic starts to overtake Henry. He breathes deeply, calms himself, and says, “Yes, all right, Joseph. Tomorrow?”
“Day after tomorrow. Afternoon. 3.30. Henry – Mary will be looked after. God, I’ll marry her myself, a minute after your funeral.”
“Won’t Grace have something to say about that?”
“Grace?” All innocence, and a broad grin.
“Your wife.”
Henry’s calm now, but there’s a moth of fear beating in his belly, a twitching of spiders. He makes a conscious effort to ignore them, swallows, and stands, his face pale.
“Will you be all right, Henry?”
“Well, I shouldn’t think so. But I’ll be OK. I’ll head on home now, I think. Need to have a few words with Mary.”
The two men smile at one another, nod, and shake hands. Henry pockets the appointment card, and walks away from the pictures, those beautiful pictures that display the fragility of his life, those black and white pictures that may well spell his doom, and steps out into the street.
Doctor Know shakes his head. He’s never seen Henry Talbot come unglued before. Henry was the stalwart of the rugby team, the quiet centre at the bottom of the ruck. He was the man you could depend on to guard his wicket when all others were falling about him. Know looks down at the street as Henry leaves, and scrubs his face with his broad hands. The he walks to his credenza, and pours a cup of coffee.
To Henry, the street looks ridiculously normal. There’s Fred Warrington over there at the bookshop, buying his girlie magazines, Mona Stack coming from the Jean Shop, it’s about time she left that drunkard of a husband, by crikey if ever a man needed locking up it’s Jack Stack. There’s Bill Anderson looking at my car again, no Bill, I’ll not be selling it, not this year, and not to you. Mind you, you may only have to wait six months. Oh – got to pick up some stuff from the Supermarket. Cat food, dunny paper, um, stuff. Need some brandy and scotch, too. Better get some money from the ATM.
Card in, six months, PIN, I wish people wouldn’t say PIN Number, six months, the N stands for number doesn’t it, six months could be a year could be nothing, savings account, three hundred should do, what the dickens?
A sharp bang, and the bank widow cracks, a small hole appears between the t and p of Westpac. A man wearing a balaclava backs out of the bank, a gun in his hand, a revolver, and a black plastic garbage bag, in the other, he’s shouting, screaming.
“Stay down, everybody stay down!’ He raises the gun and fires twice at a security camera, and turns and there standing in front of him is Henry.
“Here. Do you want my money, too?” asks Henry. What do you think you’re doing, Henry? He’s got a gun in his hand! A gun! Damned if I know what I‘m doing, he thinks. But I’m doing it. He waves the slim wad of twenties, then flings them over the robber’s head.
Anyone, even a priest, would watch the money, and that’s what the robber does. His eyes go up, and Henry hits him three times with bunched fists, left to the face, right to the heart, left to the head, he’s going down, what –
As the robber falls, he squeezes the trigger on the gun, and the .22 bullet tears through Henry’s right leg, digging a clean hole through the meat of the calf-muscle, then spanging into Henry’s car’s headlight. Oddly, Henry doesn’t know he’s been shot until his leg collapses under him, a half-minute later. As it is, Henry bends down, grabs the robber’s balaclava, and tugs it off.
“Oh, Jimmy! What’s your mum going to say! She’s going to go crook about this, no mistake.”
It’s James Fletcher, from down Te Awe Street. He’s been in a few scrapes before, but this one takes the biscuit. Henry knows him from the Rugby Club, where he’s a lifetime member.
Now Henry’s leg gives way, and he falls beside the dazed boy. Well, no boy: Jimmy’s in his late 20s, and oh, for Pete’s sake, look at that!
“James! You shot my car! What did you shoot my car for?”

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