By the Way • October 5, 2014

Report: The People’s Climate March

The march announced itself by force of numbers, and by its feel. No one seemed angry. This is not to say that the marchers had been bought off, or didn't understand the long odds facing them, or even that they aren't angry. But they are taking a clever rhetorical detour around a problem.


By Max Larkin

NEW YORK, NY. — I traveled down to New York for the People’s Climate March, I admit, out of a sense of political curiosity. I care, but like many Americans I’ve found it hard to rate the climate over poverty or prison or the foreign-policy fires that break out from time to time. By chance a friend and I had joined an interfaith brigade, a subsection in the People’s Climate March had assembled on West 58th Street, in the shadow of The Shops at Columbus Circle and CNN HQ. It was around eleven o’clock.

At the front of the crowd, Rabbi Jay Michaelson stood at the stern of an ark-shaped float on the back of a truck, wearing a technicolor tallit. The ark was a new construction; organizers hoped it could be reused in other parades down the line. Right then it held ministers and kids, markers and tape; a few volunteers wore horse masks or had paper unicorn horns strapped to their heads, and signs that read: “We Missed the Boat Last Time,” etc., etc.

Michaelson blew a shofar after speeches and prayers made onstage; he’s newly a rabbi and comes from a career in activism. Even today, he said, he’s “more of a march-in-the-streets rabbi than a pray-in-the-pews rabbi.” He’s also a columnist on environment and politics for the Jewish Daily Forward.

Two days before Michaelson had written that the green movement needed to appeal to the mainstream to be successful. In the fight for gay rights, he had learned about the all-importance of political messaging. He spoke candidly:

It was market-tested to death. When that movement was about gay rights, it was a big loser. It didn’t work, and nobody was motivated. When it turned into ‘love is love’, ‘we just want what everybody else wants: family, love, connection’ — and faith leaders played a big part in that — that message worked. It wasn’t cynical. It’s not that that’s not true. It was true. But which side do you emphasize?

He looked out over the group: “Calling it the ‘People’s Climate March’ — it isn’t exactly a frame that reaches out.”

We paused while some of the Muslim delegation began silently to pray toward Central Park, backed by an inflatable mosque. The crowd — Buddhists with banners, little platoons of hippie Catholics, here and there anti-nuclear T-shirts, crafty, hand-painted signs — was very definitely “progressive”. How would a People’s Climate March look to people who would never think of attending?

Suddenly an organizer tapped me on the shoulder: “We need to get going, so would you—?” The Rabbi and I said a quick goodbye, I hopped off the boat, then we all were off. The ark seemed to drift away on a sea of shoulders.

The march followed the line of the park, passing a ‘climate vigil’ sat in cross-legged meditation on the grass. There was no overwhelming sound; the march had no sergeants. The signs read: “There is No Planet B”, “Don’t Frack With U.S.,” “Ashamed Republican” with an arrow pointing down at the man holding it. Children, long-haired teens, nuns, and expatriates walked unregimented, in drifting formations. An older woman wearing a paper bag as a hat — she had written “Recycle” on it in Sharpie — emerged as a swaggering presence nearby. (One of the amazing things about the movement is the respect it has for its grandmothers.)

We made the turn down Sixth Avenue, and marched into the heart of Manhattan. A family pushed their luggage across the street and through the crowd on a trolley. There was Fox News HQ; a building-side crawl reminded passersby of ISIS. Then we passed the banks, with all-glass facades that made them look all the emptier, the more forbidding.

Nobody threw a brick. A young man, in full Caledonian dress, blew a bagpipe; behind him people danced to a Brazilian drumline. The “Recycle” lady strutted along alone, between banks of public and parochial-school students. Bryant Park was quiet, bracketed by a police cordon. For those present, midtown Manhattan was transformed. Did anyone notice?


The movement’s answers may come from repurposing a history. In 2002 the administration of George W. Bush reintroduced a doctrine of preemptive war, or “anticipatory self-defense.” For obvious reasons that language has fallen into disuse (though we are now fighting a limited preemptive war against the jihadis of ISIS, who pose, it’s said, “no immediate threat” to the American people).

But let’s not let perfectly sound moral thinking be abandoned entirely, when it has only been misapplied. Preemption itself is not evil: in a risk-ridden and high-velocity world, it’s common sense. And finally we may have a problem worthy of its use — and hundreds of thousands of people are marching over it. We might, borrowing a phrase from the philosopher William James, consider the climate movement as the moral equivalent of preemptive war: brigades of clean-energy advocates, barge-stopping kayakers, arborists, aquaculturists, and architects, toiling and thinking and building as if the worst is still avoidable.

In his original essay, James predicted that we might civilize ourselves by putting the “barbarian virtues”, so popular with so many American men, to civic work: in football and Americorps and the Civilian Conservation Corps, where the struggle is against nature and privation, a cordial opponent or our own limits.

In 1977 Jimmy Carter pitched the nation on treating our energy dependency as an opportunity to rally and fight a common cause in this nature using this very rhetoric.

But maybe it would be best if the climate movement today proposed a grander kind of struggle. The enemy ought to be, beyond oil and even capitalism, a defect in national, or human, consciousness — the immature American wish to remain outside of history, our tendency to treat every small emergency as a fire to be managed, an opportunity to avoid the big ones.


After turning at one last barricade, the march continued on to Eleventh Avenue where it dried up uneventfully: no speech. It was an evanescent kind of civil action, like weather. It was a dazing kind of day, but by the time I left New York the next morning I was impressed.

The march announced itself by force of numbers, and by its feel. No one seemed angry. This is not to say that the marchers had been bought off, or didn’t understand the long odds facing them, or even that they aren’t angry. But they are taking a clever rhetorical detour around a problem.

I thought of Kurt Vonnegut’s terrifying poem of extinction, “Requiem”.

When the last living thing

has died on account of us,

how poetical it would be

if Earth could say,

in a voice floating up


from the floor

of the Grand Canyon,

”It is done.”

People did not like it here.

If there was a common message to the march, it is this: “We do like it here, don’t we?” (And love is love, isn’t it?)

I hope that the marchers — especially the youngest among them — another generation tempered by war and peace that is bitter and uneven, can help the rest of us relearn our history, relearn that there is history beyond four-year cycles and Long Wars, and that the United States has a lot of making up to do.

We are finding it harder to ignore the consequences of our actions and self-aware, with the medium of the internet and the medium of the atmosphere as instructors. We have the fear of shame that would come from a world whose barrenness testified to our carelessness. And all we will need, in a sense, is prompting: if not from storm and drought, then from such marches as this one in September.

To do this the activists will need to be militant, but un-military — they will need, much of the time, to smile and be peaceable and commonsensical: to remind us how worthy all this is, Chris Hedges be damned.

In a tight huddle toward the end of the walking some twenty-two-year-old finished up a pep talk to others in his group: “Organize, organize, organize!” Everyone around him cheered, and even sighed. It’s the call that Stokely Carmichael made after a long march fifty years ago this summer, and it still sounds like the answer.

Podcast • May 17, 2011

Teju Cole: A “Seething Intelligence” on a Long Journey

Teju Cole and Open City, his marvel of a first novel, pull you into a peculiarly contemporary stream of consciousness — of a global mind in motion, coming home to see himself and us, as if for the first time. Born in Michigan of Nigerian parents, Cole was raised in Lagos to the age of 17, then got his college and graduate education (briefly in medicine, then in art history) in the States.


Teju Cole and Open City, his marvel of a first novel, pull you into a peculiarly contemporary stream of consciousness — of a global mind in motion, coming home to see himself and us, as if for the first time. Born in Michigan of Nigerian parents, Cole was raised in Lagos to the age of 17, then got his college and graduate education (briefly in medicine, then in art history) in the States. It’s not just the quick resumé that reminds you of Rana Dasgupta — who was born and educated in England, then returned to his father’s country, India, to write stories and the novel Solo, set in the everywhere/nowhere of Bulgaria. Both writers — friends and mutual admirers, both in their mid-thirties — seem to have undertaken a project without borders. Cole tells me he likes to see himself evaluating a scene, he says, like an detective in a cop show: “What have we got here?” First, he looks; then he starts digging. History is the new geography, even at Ground Zero in Manhattan:

This was not the first erasure on the site… The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased and rewritten. There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail, before Verrazano anchored his ships in the narrows, or the black Portugese slave trader Esteban Gomez sailed up the Hudson; human beings had lived here, built homes, and quarreled with their neighbors long before the Dutch ever saw a business opportunity in the rich furst and timber of the island and its calm bay. Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories…

The narrator “Julius” at the World Trade Center site, in Open City by Teju Cole. Random House, 2011. p. 59

Teju Cole in conversation is sprightly, almost ecstatically musical, well-read and warm. He spins, riffs, notices and links — much as he does on the page. On an effulgent May afternoon in New York we are sitting on the grass, as it happens, before the brick row houses around Henry James’s Washington Square Park. Talk about palimpsests! And Teju Cole, feeling “more alive than on other days,” is peering through the layers and disguises of the scene, picking out evidences of his “open city” transformed.

What we see is an apparently uncomplicated scene of urban leisure on a Thursday afternoon, but all of this is happening in a historical context, and in the shadow of economic uncertainty… Some of the people are here because they’re out of work. You could say to yourself: New York City is an astonishingly diverse place, but we see around us all kinds of evidence of segregation: white students from NYU, and black women of a certain age working as nannies for white babies. We are looking at the American reality under an overlay of innocence…

This city, like many others, is a space that has been pre-inhabited, that contains the stories of people who are gone, who are vanished. We look at their inscriptions and we engage with their monuments, and we walk along their paths: every time you walk down Broadway, you’re walking along an ancient cattle path that was put down by Native Americans who then had an appalling encounter with European invaders and were more or less wiped out. But we still walk down their roads. And those roads themselves, and many of those buildings, were built by slave labor in this city, by people not only whose lives have been erased from the record, but whose deaths, in a way, have been erased from the record. Only recently was the burial grounds of the slaves rediscovered. And even then, most of that burial ground is covered with office buildings now. There’s this essential mystery of life in the city: it contains others who are not us in the present time — I’m not you and you’re not me, maybe we don’t live in the same neighborhood — but it also contains others who are not us, in the sense that so much of it was made by those others.

Teju Cole with Chris Lydon in Washington Square Park, New York City, May 12, 2011.

Teju Cole is opening up, too, about the music that’s written into Open City — for example, the pattern of “doublings” (as in instrumental voices) of characters and cities, themes and phrases (like the air of a man “who had undertaken long journeys”) that recur in different rhythms and harmonies, so to speak. In particular, Gustav Mahler is another of those “vanished” who inhabit Teju Cole’s present and obsess his character Julius, a psychiatry resident about to start his clinical practice. Mahler (death centennial next year) was himself drawn to the “open city” of New York in a tormented late act of a great composing-conducting career. He was, Cole writes, “the genius of prolonged farewells,” in a long series of “final statements,” up to his unfinished Tenth Symphony.

Mahler’s music flows somewhere under Cole’s elegiac novel — “a story,” he calls it, “of mourning, for the feeling this city carried with itself after 9.11.” But what is it, I wonder, we are still bidding farewell? “It’s as if,” Cole says, “after 9.11 we entered a new phase in the life of this civilization. But I think it was also clear that it was the end of something… There’s a strong goodbye element in this novel, too.” The last chapter of the book, we’re noting, has three endings: one at Carnegie Hall, in a Simon Rattle performance of Mahler’s Ninth; another in a view of the stars over Manhattan; the last in a harbor-cruise view of the Statue of Liberty.

There are two “open cities,” it turns out, in Teju Cole’s novel. Julius travels in search of his German mother to Belgium. Brussels is the city which gave Hitler’s troops free passage in World War II and preserved its medieval design but which, by 2006, is half-paralyzed by dread of Muslim immigrants. Brussels is where Julius meets his own double, a Moroccan Islamist of “seething intelligence,” a phone-store clerk who wants to be Edward Said when he grows up. And then there is Brussels’ “double,” New York, open to the deadbeat and the driven, thriving on perpetual renewal, and “saturated with the ominous energies” of its inherited past.

But then a student delighted Teju Cole on a school visit with the thought that his invention Julius — a solitary walker and cool, catalytic conversationalist with a stunning variety of New Yorkers — is himself the Open City.

Teju Cole’s last word with us — very much in that Open City spirit — was about the work ahead: first, a non-fiction account of Lagos (another “doubling,” it seems, of Rana Dasgupta’s work in progress on New Delhi) and then another novel:

“It’s simmering very softly below the surface. I don’t know what it’ll be. I don’t know where it’ll go. But I am going to have to confront Ulysses. We can’t keep pretending it didn’t happen. We can’t keep writing 19th Century novels, you know. We can’t pretend that that amazing unexploded ordnance of a book did not happen.” On the other side of Washington Square Park we hear sounds of kids cheering. “And in the far distance,” Teju Cole closed, as if on cue, “people applaud that idea. So I take it as a sign from the gods.”

Podcast • April 19, 2011

“A Dirty Shirt at Night”: Jimmy Breslin on …

Jimmy Breslin is the newspaper columnist whose gruff prose has extended the whole human comedy of New York to the world, first in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune, and later the Daily ...

breslin wideJimmy Breslin is the newspaper columnist whose gruff prose has extended the whole human comedy of New York to the world, first in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune, and later the Daily News and Newsday.

Breslin is telling us the story of Branch Rickey, the owner of the old Brooklyn Dodgers who integrated baseball — and changed our country — when he hired Jackie Robinson back in 1947. Rickey, Breslin says, “decided that there was a great American sin, and a great America to be gained by putting a black into baseball. He could see things.”

Jimmy Breslin can see things too. In our conversation, he’s musing far and wide about the great America that’s been gained, and the one that’s still in the offing. It’s all delivered in the unmistakeable style that he calls “a dirty shirt at night.”

He’s sharing observations on everything from “Who killed the newspaper?”;

The thing in the air, where you don’t have to read. What is it? — Google, internet, this, that. You’re gettin’ beat by the air. The air. The air wins. …

to the future of The New York Times;

The New York Times? 82 words in a lede sentence, I’m reading one day, and you expect it to last against the words that come whizzing through the air? No. It cannot be. Not for long.

to Obama;

Obama comes from Robinson. There was a White House waiting for him because of Robinson. You put a black into the White House! Tell me that isn’t amazing. It makes the mouth drop open. Then the first thing he does is he’s in support of three wars. And I’m supposed to like him. Hard-ly.

to the view from his apartment, 38 floors above Columbus Circle;

The river is marvelous. I just look at the river; with the clouds, on prime days, it’s beautiful. It’s not going to help you — you better sit down and write! But it’s good to gaze once in a while.

to the origins of the Breslin – (Norman) Mailer bid for NYC government;

BAR! One hand on the wood of a bar while we expounded what we were going to do. It was a night at the bar and it spilled into too many.

to the right wing today,

Why do they waste their freaking time with those views in a country like this? What are you worried about saving money for so much? Spend the money! Spend more. Help people, be known for it and you’ll find there’s more money there than they believe is.

and being called a “master.”

It’s marvelous to be embarrassed.

Jimmy Breslin with Chris Lydon, NYC, April 2011.

Podcast • March 31, 2011

André Aciman: “The rest is just prose…”

Art takes the ordinary, the absolutely ordinary day-to-day humdrum stuff, the stuff we ignore, and it magnifies it and keeps magnifying it until it becomes big enough for you to see finally what your day ...

Art takes the ordinary, the absolutely ordinary day-to-day humdrum stuff, the stuff we ignore, and it magnifies it and keeps magnifying it until it becomes big enough for you to see finally what your day was like… My father taught me that the most important things in life are the small ones, and it’s important to observe them with fussiness, and that’s what I devote my life to… This is why I love French literature. You don’t need an Atlantic Ocean, you don’t need Moby Dick, you don’t need whales. You need a small room — basically two individuals sitting in one room with the impossibility of going for sex. That’s not part of the formula; it will come, but not right now, says the script. … Proust is a master of this, of putting individuals together. Or remove one individual and you have one individual by himself, thinking about experience and trying to be as honest as he can with himself and therefore with the reader about the things that crossed his mind and how he dealt with them, and how he thinks experience works … The rest is just, as I like to say, “just prose”. And we have a lot of masters of “just prose” living today.

André Aciman with Chris Lydon in NYC, March 24, 2011.


André Aciman is best known as a devoté of Marcel Proust. He’s not well-enough known, I’d say, for a new novel, Eight White Nights, a beautifully blocked romance that begins and ends in the snow, like James Joyce’s masterpiece story, “The Dead,” and owes still more perhaps to Dostoevsky’s heart-crushing tale of another anonymous lover’s woe, “White Nights.” Eight White Nights is the interior record of an “asymptotic” affair — between lovers who, like the line on the graph, get ever closer to committed intimacy but never reach it. It could remind you also of Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle,” though it turns out that André Aciman scorns Henry James for “gutlessness” — that bogus old charge, in my view. But no matter. André Aciman sets himself where he belongs, in the classical tradition of imaginative writers about our inward and invisible lives.

He has generously, candidly admitted us into the workshop of his meticulous craft — the place where he dresses and undresses, teases and assaults his characters, and gives them better lines than people give him. His own unguarded lines in conversation run to the cantankerous and caustic. Who else out there honors the master tradition. “No one!” What gets a writer over the threshhold? “Style,” he says. “Content is over-rated.” When people ask how he could set a novel — to wit: Eight White Nights — in New York with nary a mention of 9.11, his answer is “the here-and-now, portrayed as the here-and-now, is insignificant.”

Born himself into a French-speaking Jewish family in Alexandria in 1951, Aciman is original, cosmopolitan and extravagant about the writers who have inspired or taught him: among them E. M. Forster, W. G. Sebald, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Marguerite Yourcenar and on a pinnacle strangely higher even than Proust: Thucydides. And still, fair warning, our conversation keeps returning to Proust. It was his father, a writer manqué, who told him to read Proust for “the long sentence that keeps you waiting… It took me years to realize what that meant, to understand the abeyance that is being built in, that courts the reader into holding his breath and waiting and waiting and staying under water and not feeling that you’re going to drown. That takes time.”

Podcast • April 7, 2010

Colum McCann: American Literature and New York’s Redemption

Colum McCann wrote the New Yorkiest and, many feel, the best of 9.11 novels, Let the Great World Spin, and won the National Book Award for it. Vertiginous thrills and delights of every kind abound ...

Colum McCann wrote the New Yorkiest and, many feel, the best of 9.11 novels, Let the Great World Spin, and won the National Book Award for it. Vertiginous thrills and delights of every kind abound in the poetic density of the book. It feels wondrous, too, that a youngish Irish immigrant wrote it — that he back-dated his tale of New York’s recovery to 1974, and gave it an old-fashioned religious twist of redemption, literally deliverance from evil. Our recording has three parts: first some of Colum McCann’s reading at Wellesley College at the end of March; then his give and take with Colin Channer, the Jamaican “reggae novelist” who teaches at Wellesley; and the rest of the hour with me, drawing Colum McCann out in Easter week 2010, as it happened, on the idea and imagery of resurrection in his work.

Colin Channer: You’re now a U.S. citizen, but are you American?

Colum McCann: That’s a brilliant question! Okay. Yes, I am… If you’d asked me that three years ago, I would not have been able to say yes. Because there’s a huge amount of guilt in losing your citizenship, even though I’m a dual citizen: I’m Irish and an American at the same time, not Irish-American, not hyphenated, no.

I think this is very important to say: I came to this country 25 years ago, took a bicycle across the United States. I found it to be one of the most extraordinarily generous places. Honestly, I’m not playing to the crowd. I went down through Mississippi, Louisiana, through Texas, you know, and everywhere I met this astounding generosity and the desire to tell stories and the desire also to listen to stories.

But now I look at American literature as populated with all these voices, like yourself, right? Like Aleksandar Hemon. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. So, you’re coming from Jamaica. Sasha is coming from Sarejevo. Chimamanda is coming from Nigeria. I’m coming from Ireland. Yiyun Li is coming from China. Edwidge Danticat is coming from Haiti. And you know what the most amazing thing is? That they can be considered American writers at the same time… They don’t strip you of anything. This seems to me to be like the extraordinary intellectual, emotional generosity of what’s happening despite all the shit that’s occurred over the last ten years of politics in this country. We won’t get into that too much. I do think there’s still something at the core of the experience of coming here and being an immigrant here that’s unlike anywhere on earth. It makes American literature as far as I’m concerned one of the most muscular, elastic and brilliant of anywhere, and I still think it’s at the forefront.

CC: Right. I agree with you. But there’s a certain privilege though, in being an immigrant writer. And I think part of the privilege is that you’re allowed to be serious. Where I think that the tyranny of irony has overtaken so many American writers of our age group, where one feels silly being serious, and so there is the posture of cynicism…

CMcC: There are plenty of exceptions that prove the rule. In terms of American writers that are doing profound things now, I think the Steinbeck of where we are is Dave Eggers. He kicks me in the chest every time. I just think he is so involved and he cares so much. And then William Vollmann and people like that… But there is that sort of middle-aged sort of ironic sort of dark humor sort of thing that just gets up my nostrils. I just think, “Come on, guys!” There’s so much to talk about. It’s very important to take on some of these ideas. You look at the older generation: DeLillo and Doctorow and Banks. They’re doing such great things.

I asked Colum McCann to pull on thread of the extraterrestrial, maybe metaphysical dimensions of Let the Great World Spin.

CL: Touch on the very Christian piece of this novel, starting with John Corrigan whose initials are J.C. He’s living an active, conscious kind of Imitation of Christ there among the hookers of the South Bronx. And of course there’s the tightrope walker [between the Twin Towers] who is enacting, as you say, a kind of anti-crucifixion, a kind of resurrection. It seems to me this is very brave on your part, and it’s a very central part of the beauty of this book.

CMcC: It’s not brave on my part. I think there are other people who are out in the community who are a billion times braver than I am, and they are the monks and the people who are doing the ordinary things. One of my favorite lines is when Corrigan actually says in the book, “Someday the meek might actually want it.” And so that’s what he works towards: this idea that the meek who are supposed to inherit the earth might actually want it and need it. When I was thinking about this whole thing, about having an Irish Catholic character who’s in conflict and everything… I wanted to embrace the expansiveness, the beauty of spirit, the generosity, the decency that actually is embedded in the faith and in the Church. So to be anti-nostalgic, in the same way that you can be anti-naïve, in the same way that you can be anti-simple. So you force yourself into a position of difficulty, because it seems to me that we’ve forgotten… the excellence of difficulty… But there’s something really beautiful in the notion of difficulty.

Colum McCann with Colin Channer and Chris Lydon at Wellesley College, March 30, 2010.

Podcast • June 16, 2009

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland: the Novel of the Age

I make two guesses here: that Barack Obama knows almost as little about cricket as I do (which is: zero); and further (much more interesting) that the president has found in Joseph O’Neill’s cricket-in-New York ...

I make two guesses here: that Barack Obama knows almost as little about cricket as I do (which is: zero); and further (much more interesting) that the president has found in Joseph O’Neill’s cricket-in-New York novel Netherland a sort of founding text for this turnabout era, this reconciling moment we seem to have entered, this Age of Obama.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Joseph O’Neill. (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Joseph O’Neill: “Think fantastic!”

Everybody knows by now that Netherland has been Mr. Obama’s bedtime reading this spring. This is said to mean that our president is not all-wonk, that he still has a writer’s appetite for imaginative prose. To me it’s downright strange that nobody goes on to ask: but why this book? and what might it mean to him? These are the questions I’m chasing down here with the author.

The affinities between O’Neill and O’Bama are delicious. O’Neill, like the president a fine amateur athlete, had been playing cricket on Staten Island less than 48 hours before we met in Boston. Like the president, O’Neill is a hybrid of two cultures: his father comes of a family of IRA tough guys from West Cork; his mother is the daughter of a Syrian-Christian-Turkish hotel keeper on the Eastern Mediterranean port town, Mersin, in Turkey. O’Neill grew up mainly in The Hague in Holland. He went to mainly English schools and has a law degree from Cambridge. O’Neill’s great work of non-fiction, Blood-Dark Track, a “family history,” could have been subtitled Dreams, and Nightmares, from my Grandfathers. At a White House ceremony recently, O’Neill told me that not the least of what he shared with the president was a raging urge to step outside for a cigarette.

In the near background of our conversation is the immortal Trinidadian cricket aficionado C. L. R. James (1901 – 1989) and his autobiographical masterpiece, Beyond a Boundary. People keep commenting on Joseph O’Neill’s debt to F. Scott Fitgerald and The Great Gatsby for this novel about a climber and halfway gangster, Netherland‘s Trinidadian-American Chuck Ramkissoon, who dreams a new American dream and ends up, like Gatsby, literally dead in the water. But O’Neill is in much deeper debt to C. L. R. James for his cricket vision.

James was an inspiring writer in the pan-African liberationist movements of the 1930s and after. He was a fierce anti-imperialist and, contrarily, an ardent champion of pre-imperial English culture (he had virtually memorized Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in his teens) and most especially of cricket, the country sport that the Empire took to the colonies. “Cricket is much more than a game for Mr. James,” as Neville Cardus of the Guardian put it; “it is a way of life.”

# 1 on sports, the West Indes, colonialism

“Cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle,” James wrote in Beyond a Boundary. “It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance.” Embedded in it, moreover, is a universal code of fair struggle and honor. Common phrases like “a straight bat” and “it isn’t cricket” became “watchwords of manners and virtue and the guardians of freedom and power.” James, who called himself “a British intellectual long before I was ten,” came to think that games were more expressive of a culture than poetry, drama and music, and that W. G. Grace, the Babe Ruth of 19th Century cricket, was a higher monument of English life than Queen Victoria. The game itself, he decided, was “the only contribution of the English educational system of the nineteenth century to the general educational ideas of Western civilization.” For black and brown West Indians, specifically, James found that schoolboy cricket had everything to do with self-mastery and liberation among a subject people. Club cricket and the international game turned out to be wide open to transformation by West Indian virtuosity. The starting point for C. L. R. James, as Joseph O’Neill recounts in our conversation, was that

Learie Constantine bats for the West Indes

…if you were one of the members of a colonized race in Trinidad — there are two in Trinidad: an African population and a South Asian population, almost 50-50 — you were allowed very few forms of self expression. And one of those was cricket. It was one of the arenas where certain hierarchies were abolished. A lot of sports have that in common. And he thought that was a great thing, where people could have access to their souls on the cricket field… Also the trajectory of Trinidad in particular towards independence went hand in hand with the West Indies cricket team, gradually becoming a team which reflected the West Indian population and not of the colonists. Quite separately from those local things, he took it as a given that cricket, as he said, is like art. It’s a wonderful thing, and why should we diminish ourselves – we being the colonized people in this case – by persisting to see it as being owned by the colonizer? Why can’t we own this sport? So what if they made it up? Are we not just as entitled to the particular bliss and gratifications that this sport offers? And that is quite a big important statement to make. It’s a way of throwing off colonial categories of the world and it’s a way of laying claim to what the world has to offer. We see now in the way cricket is organized around the world that India is the main power in cricket, and will undoubtedly remain in that position for many years. And the old seat of power in London is not what it was…

Frank Worrell against England, 1950

This is the thinking that Joseph O’Neill has learned from C. L. R. James, puts regularly into practice on the cricket grounds of New York, and has embodied in Chuck Ramkissoon, the most beguiling character in Netherland. It’s the thinking that feels like such a good fit with the First Reader in the White House.

If a novel confronts the American reader with the other, namely cricket, that is something that would obviously appeal to this President, who it seems to me is extremely interested in the tension between oneself and the other, and sees it as a very fruitful tension. I’ll put it another way: if there’s any American who could understand cricket, it is Barack Obama. And in many ways his platform is a Ramkisoonian platform, namely that the current boundaries (again the reference to James is intentional) of American vision have proved to be defective. They just have. And the Bush years represented a kind of catastrophic shrinkage of what it means to be American, and the idea of what the role of America in the wider world might be. Barack Obama, for autobiographical and intellectual reasons, is in a position to make another argument. I think so far he’s made it rather persuasively.

Joseph O’Neill in conversation with Chris Lydon, Boston, June 15, 2009.