My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A very few of you might remember my review of Swamplandia!, in which I lamented that I had to write a fairly negative review despite the sheer and impressive beauty of Karen Russell's prose.
This review is the stunted offspring of that one. Joseph O'Neill's prose is undeniably lovely, but where Russell lost me with a slightly too odd-and-fantastical plot, O'Neill simply left me trudging through endless paragraphs wondering where they were going (if anywhere). If I wanted to place the fault with myself, perhaps I'd blame my lack of experience with -- or interest in -- cricket. A man holding his old cricket bat just does not evoke an emotional response the way, say, a young man with a gold helmet does.
Beautiful, right? But I think I'm just too American for cricket, because when a description of a game doesn't contain anything about plays or scores or even winners, I get bored. We watch and play sports because we want our team to win, not because we want to admire the inherent beauty of the way colored uniforms stand out against the green field. That beauty may well exist, and I am not saying O'Neill is wrong to draw attention to it, but I do think it's wrong to ignore the point of the sport. In other words, the problem is not that this is a book largely about a sport. The problem is that Netherland is not really about a sport at all.
O'Neill, by contrast, can (and does) wax endlessly eloquent on the subject of cricket:
Admit it, you get a little misty-eyed, too.
It's as if baseball were a game about home runs rather than base hits, and its basemen were relocated to spots deep in the outfield. This degenerate version of the sport...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 toward the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors.
These are some of the sports-based books I've read. There's a pretty healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction, and it includes books about football, baseball, basketball, gymnastics, and running. (Admittedly, I have yet to read a book about hockey. But I did watch Mystery, Alaska -- does that count?)
. . .
What do all these books have in common? Not much, other than the fact that they acknowledge that the essence of sport is competition. Even in running, in which there are neither teams nor a point-based scoring system, you're competing against other runners (and your previous selves) for best time. After reading Netherland, I could honestly believe that the point of cricket is to appreciate all the ways in which terrain can affect the path of the ball.
To be fair, I rather enjoyed the first 25% of the book, and the last 25% of the book wasn't bad. Unfortunately, it's the middle 50% that really left an impression. Our Dutch-born hero ruminates sadly but not very productively on the disintegration of his marriage, wanders the streets thinking about cricket, drives around with a guy who wants to start a cricket club, talks about cricket, and [drumroll] decides to get his driver's license. That last part, of course, leads to all sorts of bureaucratic hijinks -- which, as we all know, are the least exciting hijinks in existence. The big plot twist here is [dun-dun-DUN] a typo on one of his IDs! Which he must get fixed -- get this -- before he can get his license!
Are you on the edge of your seat? Yeah, I wasn't either.