By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 11, 2009
As novelist Joseph O'Neill sat on the Folger Theatre stage Saturday night, he had twin causes for celebration.
There was, of course, the prestigious prize that had brought him to Washington. The words "Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award" were stripped across the cover of the newly released paperback edition of O'Neill's novel "Netherland," which he clutched in his hand while waiting his turn to read at the award ceremony.
And then there was the unexpected endorsement of President Obama, who told a New York Times reporter in a recent interview that he was reading "Netherland" as an escape from the constant onslaught of briefing books.
How much literary juice does the president have? Well, without it, O'Neill would have been holding a hardcover. After the Obama nod, Vintage Books rushed the paperback of the cricket-obsessed, post-9/11 novel into print, never mind the lamentable inability to slap a "Barack's Book Club" label on it.
"It's all a little unreal, isn't it?" O'Neill, 45, said in an interview before the ceremony. He said he was "thrilled" by the mention -- he was an early Obama supporter -- but promptly issued a caveat:
Novelists should believe strongly enough in what they do to say, "What's the big deal? Why shouldn't the president read my book?" O'Neill said. "Surely it's not contended by anybody that the only valuable information about the world is to be found in briefing books."
The PEN/Faulkner honorees and judges who took the stage Saturday night appeared to agree. Obama's choice of bedtime reading remained a subtext to the literary celebration. In the PEN/Faulkner tradition, the judges were all fiction writers themselves and the four finalists were lauded equally with the winner.
Judge Antonya Nelson introduced Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's "Ms. Hempel Chronicles," linked stories about a 20-something English teacher, as a book that "redeems the irredeemable seventh grade." Bynum drew repeated laughs reading from a story about a middle-school talent show.
Susan Choi's "A Person of Interest," which takes off from elements of both the Unabomber case and the espionage accusations against Wen Ho Lee, was described by judge Randall Kenan as a "probing and unusually intelligent novel" that brings to the "21st century media circus a rather 19th-century sense and sensibility."
Judge Lee Abbott praised Richard Price, a finalist for "Lush Life," as a novelist "not afraid to report the facts." ("Melville knew about knots," he said. "Richard Price knows about bartending.") Price went on to read a passage that displayed his knowledge of the grim rooms where policemen bring fathers to identify the bodies of their murdered sons, the acoustical tiles on the walls "specifically installed" to mute outbursts of grief.
Abbott went on to commend Ron Rash for his craftsmanship in "Serena" -- "the nuts and bolts stuff that turns the word into the world" -- and finally it was the winner's turn to be introduced.
O'Neill, Nelson said, "takes as his subjects the harrowing aftermath of 9/11, the whimsical notion of an American cricket league and a domestic fugue of longing for a family far away." She mentioned O'Neill's cricket-loving protagonist, Hans van den Broek, and his friend Chuck Ramkissoon, a West Indian-born would-be entrepreneur. "The U.S. is not complete, the U.S. has not fulfilled its destiny, it's not fully civilized," Nelson quoted Chuck as telling Hans, "until it has embraced the game of cricket."
Alas, it is not to be. "There's a limit to what Americans understand. The limit is cricket," Nelson said, citing the gloomy verdict of another "Netherland" character.
Ah, but President Obama could help change that.
"When Obama went to Trinidad recently," O'Neill said in the interview, he was photographed with "one of the great cricketers of modern times," Brian Lara, who was showing the president how to bat. "All cricket people know about this picture."
But its meaning, to O'Neill, extends beyond the game.
In his novel, cricket "represents that which is alien to American eyes, but nevertheless demands to be understood by American eyes." Obama, O'Neill said, also "demands a certain expansion of the American identity." He embodies a 21st-century America with a more "capacious and complex apprehension of the world" than that of his predecessors.
"This is a guy," O'Neill said, laughing, "who would not be incapable of understanding a cricket match."
The novelist and the president have more in common than an (unequal) interest in cricket. O'Neill's Irish father met his Turkish mother while helping build an oil refinery in her country, and their son spent the first six years of a "geographically itinerant" childhood in South Africa, Mozambique, Iran and Turkey before the family settled in Holland. University study in England was followed by marriage to an American and a move to New York.
With a background like this, he said, "you're called upon to construct your identity. Your identity is not given to you."
On their visit to Washington, O'Neill and his family toured the Lincoln and Vietnam memorials, but not the White House. His three sons, all under 10 years old, protested the omission.
"They wanted to go say hello to Obama," O'Neill said, "and were mystified as to why they couldn't do it."