The idea of publishing a novel in the United States about cricket gave him commercial qualms but not artistic ones, Mr. O’Neill said in an e-mail message. “You want a novel to tap as directly as possible into your most unspeakable preoccupations,” he added. “And in America, in particular, cricket is pretty unspeakable.”
New York cricket is “bush cricket,” one of the characters in the book complains, played on wickets of cocoa mat instead of grass and on weedy, substandard pitches, where to score a run you need to bat the ball in the air instead of elegantly along the fast ground of a proper pitch. But it has a charm of its own and is played with unusual devotion, in remote corners of the city, by a surprisingly large number of people unable or unwilling to shed their cricketing heritage...
On the sidelines, near the Walker Park field house, a slate-roofed Tudor-style building, players and onlookers sipped tea and nibbled Parle-G biscuits from India. They cheered, hollered and called out to those on the field in the lilting accent of the islands, the clipped vowels of Guyana, the lyrical syntax of Hindi-inflected English: “Well thinking, guys! Well thinking.” “Nicely batted!” “Lovely cricket — lovely!”
Passers-by took little notice. But if they had, they would have seen an odd and captivating little trace of empire: windmilling bowlers, batsmen in white leg pads, fielders chasing down a bouncing red ball — former colonials playing Britain’s game in yet another former colony, one where cricket has all but disappeared from the collective memory.
UPDATE: Hurrah! James Wood gives the novel a rave review in the New Yorker:
I don’t know whether Joseph O’Neill jumped out of his bath in Manhattan shrieking “Eureka!” when he realized that, of all the possible subjects in the world, he had to write a novel about playing cricket in New York City, but he should have. Despite cricket’s seeming irrelevance to America, the game makes his exquisitely written novel “Netherland” (Pantheon; $23.95) a large fictional achievement, and one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read. Cricket, like every sport, is an activity and the dream of an activity, badged with random ideals, aspirations, and memories. It popularly evokes long English summers, newly mown grass, the causeless boredom of childhood. Its combat is so temperate that, more explicitly than other sports, it encodes an ethics (as in the reproving British expression “It’s not cricket”). But cricket in this novel is much more than these associations: it is an immigrant’s imagined community, a game that unites, in a Brooklyn park, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Indians, West Indians, and so on, even as the game’s un-Americanness accentuates their singularity. Most poignantly, for one of the characters in the novel cricket is an American dream, or perhaps a dream of America; this man is convinced that, as he claims, cricket is not an immigrant sport at all but “the first modern team sport in America . . . a bona fide American pastime,” played in New York since the seventeen-seventies.