Joseph O’Neill does not like pickles on his burgers. Or onions. He is indifferent to the choice of beverages, but his ears prick when lemonade is spotted. He notes the happy accompaniment of fries with the burger, popping the slender brown ribbons into his mouth between sentences. All in all, it is a pleasure to have lunch with Joseph O’Neill.
The former lawyer turned novelist, O’Neill earlier this year issued his fourth book, “Netherland,” which has just been longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. He met me for lunch in Chelsea at BRGR, a low-key place where you order at the bar and await the arrival of tight meaty parcels with a long stemmed number on your table.
The day was buttery hot. At the nearby 28th Street Station of the NRW, there had just been a stabbing. The stairs were cordoned off with pink tape. Angolan men hustled watches and sunglasses. The city heaved. But never mind. At a small table in Chelsea, for just over an hour, I had one of the most formidable writers of the decade opposite me. “Netherland” rocks.
The plot of the book has received much coverage, hailed by the New York Times as the “the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell.” “Netherland” totters about inside the mind of one Hans van den Broek, a financial analyst who’s been disgorged into post-9/11 New York with a cantering sense of unease. His wife has left him, taking the kid with her. His work life is shadowy at best, matched only by the murky dealings of a new set of friends in a local cricket club, most notably its puffy president, Chuck Ramkissoon.
That’s about it. But, in the hands of the astute O’Neill, that’s more than enough. There are long car rides, meanders out to the Floyd Bennett Field where Ramkissoon hopes to create New York’s first true cricket pitch, tentatively titled Bald Eagle Field. There are the ghosts and goblins of the Chelsea Hotel where Hans has taken up residency. But it’s Hans’ internal meditations we’re after, the ones that tell us most about how he navigates the shoal waters of a world in every way made foreign and sharp-edged, “the great subtraction that had lessened my life.”
While observing the white skirt of Hans’ estranged wife that “blazed with roses” and the “misplucked eyebrows” of a straggler, O’Neill paints a portrait of a man disassociated from himself and all that is around him. The result provides artful locution of how we too may similarly negotiate choppy waters, life’s turns for the worst. Or not. Hans’ strategy is no strategy. He doesn’t walk, he “drifts.” But the character, at the very least, gets through this. The same cannot be said of others in “Netherland.”
The burgers arrive. We unwrap their packaging. Drat it all, I’m wearing black and am roasting. O’Neill, by contrast, is easy breezy in a gray t-shirt, khakis and sneakers, a slender man of 44 with thick dark hair and comfortable shoulders. He adjusts his chair to sit at an angle, taking the fast food restaurant in at full tilt. He’s been on his book tour for the past couple of months. This is the who-knows-what number interview he’s done. O’Neill rests his cheek on his hand. “At least I get a burger out of it,” he sighs.
Right. I open my notebook. A fair scrawl of questions had come to mind prior to the interview. Chicken scratchings, all of them. Where to begin? O’Neill raises a half-Turkish half-Irish eyebrow.
Born in Ireland to a Turkish mother and Irish father, O’Neill was raised in Holland and studied law at Cambridge. But letters, not law, are his bag. He came to New York in 1998, taking up with the Staten Island Cricket Club and wedding Vogue editor Sally Singer. The couple has three sons. I am off and running in earnest now, reading back to a him a quote from his family memoir, “Blood Dark Track,” that had stuck in my mind, something on the past and recovered memories and Cork. From this I drum up a haphazard question about the ins and outs of writing fiction verses non-fiction.
“Could you be more specific?” he asks, reaching across the tiny table to read this quote more carefully.
“Hmm… yes, I guess I did write that. Yeah. Ok.” More eyebrows. But then O’Neill sits back. “When you write non-fiction, you become aware of the quicksand of factuality inherent in the work, the bottomless sea of rumors.”
O’Neill pauses, allowing me to catch up with my scribbles. “With ‘Blood Dark Track’ I became aware of the difficulty of establishing any fact at all.”
The slippery-slope nature of things draws O’Neill further towards fiction, where he plans to stay and into which “Netherland” surely falls. “I’m trying to write about contemporary life and l love the linguistic freedom that fiction allows,” he says.
More burgers, more lemonade. I had, I thought, issued my heavy hitting question of the interview. We settle back into an easier rapport.
“Netherland” is spiked with grand little roller coasters of prose, moments of inward listening deliberation that swoop and glide around the curves of the story like cake icing—at once delicious and very necessary to the broader product. One such momentous example comes at the center of the book, as Hans finally lets go and eases his way into the eddies of New York nightlife with Ramkissoon at the tiller. It is the most sublime of benders:
Emboldened, I gave into the situation and its happiness—gave in to the song, to the rums and the Coca-Colas, to Avalon’s smooth skillful butt, to the hilarity of remarks made by Dr. Flavian Seem and Prashanth Ramachandran, to the suggestion that we go on, after the gala, to some further place; and to the crush of hips and legs in Chuck’s stretch limo; and to the idea that we swing by, since we’re all dressed up, the all-fours club down on Utica on the far side of the Great Eastern Parkway, where the speechless all-fours players have been playing all day and signal to partners by picking their ears and rubbing their noses, their women hanging around drinking and eating and very ready to go home; and to persuading some characters from the all-fours club to come out and fete with us at the limo driver’s place down on Remsen and Avenue A; and to stopping on the way there at Ali’s Roti Shop for roti and doubles and stopping at Thrifty Beverages to load up with beer and four bottles of rum and, because there is no limit to our hunger, stopping also at Kahaune Restaurant and Bakery to order a delivery of tripe and beans, patties, and curry goat; and to the invitation, once inside the home of the limo driver, who is named Proverbs, to join in a card game called wapi, and to losing nearly two hundred dollars playing wapi; and to the truth of the remarks “Boy, it have a good wapi there tonight” and “Mankind does be serious about the wapi game, boy”; and to the ephemeral mouth belonging to a girl with a diploma in lifesaving; and to six laughing pairs of hands that picked up my wrecked body and dropped it on a couch; and to water splashed on my face at six in the morning; and finally to the proposition, made by Chuck as we walked behind a gang of boisterous Hasidic boys in the first warmth of the weekend, that we sweat it all off at a banya just a few blocks from his house.
I ask O’Neill where and how he came up with this single sentence, if he was ever swept into the blinding moment of writing’s creation, captured in the lilt and twirl of sentences as they flow and then, once executed, simply sits back and shouts, hot hot hot!
Or whatever he shouts.
“Um, no,” he started.
“Actually, writing ‘Netherland’ was all hard. Nothing about it was easy. I was worried the entire time I was writing it. Four years into the process, I had to rewrite the whole first half. It just didn’t work, was way too plotted. It didn’t flow. I guess I had only one moment when I thought things were going well. It was when I came up with the phrase, ‘invertebrate time.’”
“Even Shakespeare would take that phrase,” he continues.
“Netherland,” he tells me, was conjured in the shadow of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby.”
“Can you believe he was only 28 when he wrote that?” I ask O’Neill. I love posing this question to good writers. It gets them every time.
“Unbelievable,” he says, shaking his head. “Unbelievable! How did someone that young have that much wisdom?”
No idea. But where others, like NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, take “Netherland” as an occasion to rehash the remarkable ease of Fitzgerald’s work, O’Neill takes a different route.
“‘Gatsby’ defies every rule of how to write a novel, right? We’re not sympathetic with Gatsby. We don’t care about Nick. They could all get mowed down, we just wouldn’t care.”
Well, here we are, nestled deep within the “green breast” of old Manhattan and, as “Netherland” winds to a close, the characters similarly defy fictional conventions. Old tensions are lived with or just fizzle. Characters that had been inscrutable, perhaps especially to themselves, remain so. And yet the words haunt, the mood is plain and real. The gaps “Netherland” leaves behind for us to fill in are, perhaps, the gaps of our own lives. We see the ways in which our own failings and miseries fit in and around the speed bumps of the novel.
As a final question, I ask O’Neill if he has any tricks of the trade, peccadilloes, little sleights of hand and superstitions that he engages in to ease the writing along.
“I usually have a golf club handy,” he says. “A putter. I swing it when I’m thinking.”
And that does it. I bow deeply to the writer. He pushes his chair in and shakes my hand. Then, as a parting word, the man compliments my shoes.
A shoe compliment. I walk away, past the Angolans and the bloodstained post-stabbing section of 28th Street, swooning and light and newly confident that I have three things seriously right in the world: A) good shoes B) a great book and C) a mercurial, magical conversation with its author.