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For novelist, 'Gatsby' comparisons are a sticky wicket

"Netherland" author Joseph O'Neill talks about 9/11, cricket, and having Obama as a reader.

"Think fantastic," urges the charismatic Chuck Ramkissoon, the shady but genial Trinidadian entrepreneur in Joseph O'Neill's prize-winning novel


. "My motto is, Think fantastic."

O'Neill appears to have heeded Chuck's ambitious advice as he wrote it. What could be more fantastic, more bold, more - let's face it - potentially "crazy" than writing the Great American Cricket Novel 12 years after one's last novel was published?

Maybe this: When President Obama told a New York Times reporter that he was reading Netherland, sales for the PEN/Faulkner Award winner increased by double digits, and Vintage moved up the release date for the paperback reprint, which appeared at the beginning of May.

"It's very odd," says O'Neill of the idea that Obama is reading his work. "Really, the president is a quasi-fictional character. It's all pure hearsay, the existence of the president . . . and strange to have oneself and one's book caught up in that story. I suppose you flatter yourself that the story is the history of the United States. That's the weird, disorienting feeling you get."

Obama's interest in Netherland, however, makes a certain amount of sense. Yes, cricket, that most puzzling of sports, plays a vital role in this elegant, intelligent novel. But O'Neill, author of the family history Blood-Dark Track and the comic novels This Is the Life and The Breezes, also deals in weighty themes: the effects of multiculturalism, the pressures of globalization, the aftermath of 9/11 for the inhabitants of New York and the rest of the world. The novel examines the myths and truths of the American dream and what it means, in this troubling century, to be an American.

"I've read a lot of books written post-9/11 . . . that still feel frightened or apocalyptic" says author Antonya Nelson, one of the PEN/Faulkner judges. "This book didn't not discuss 9/11, but it was prepared to embrace the wider tonal range in the larger world and at the same moment focus on something so idiosyncratic and perfect, that question posed early in the book: Is the United States ready for a professional cricket league? Sadly, no. It's such a funny premise, but it's also apt and slyly political.

O'Neill, Nelson says, "had confidence that his readers would be sophisticated and subtle and ready to read a book that could be comical and moving and playful as well as treating the subject of 9/11 and people's fear and loneliness."

The PEN/Faulkner puts O'Neill in heady company: Philip Roth, John Updike, E.L. Doctorow are previous winners. Critics have also compared Netherland to The Great Gatsby, with its outsider narrator (Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born equities analyst living in New York's Chelsea Hotel by way of London, separated from his wife and young son) and its modern-day, multicultural Gatsby (Ramkissoon, who sells kosher sushi, runs numbers, and revels in his grandiose plan to build a cricket stadium, among other schemes). Hans is devastated by his wife's desertion. The likable Ramkissoon is a welcome distraction, even when he skirts the edge of the law.

The comparison to F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece is flattering but makes O'Neill a bit nervous.

"I'm slightly wary about putting those two books next to each other," he says. "I'm not going to come out of it well. Gatsby is regarded by many as the seminal American novel of the 20th century, so obviously one is reluctant to invite comparisons! But I must acknowledge that debt. I was influenced by Gatsby to a degree I didn't realize until I was halfway through the book, by which point my book was significantly different to accept the possibility that the plots are similar. They're even similar in perspective and mood, with narrators, outsiders who come to New York and leave sadder but wiser men."

Like his narrator, O'Neill was primarily raised in Holland, though he was born in Cork, Ireland. He spent years as a barrister in London, a job that clearly helped him produce his first novel, This Is the Life, a wickedly sly comedy set in London's legal world. He moved to Manhattan 10 years ago.

"I came because I was married to an American, and she was offered a job here," he says of his wife Sally Singer, an editor at Vogue. "We came, much like Hans, with the idea we'd stay for a couple of years and then go back, but we stayed. I really feel very happy as a New Yorker."