Until releasing his latest novel, Joseph O'Neill was best known for his "family history" "Blood-Dark Track" (about his grandfather who was an IRA soldier) and his regular, insightful contributions to The Atlantic Monthly magazine. Add two earlier novels into this mix, and this is certainly a fine résumé. But it does not quite strike you as the background of the author who may very well have written the best-reviewed novel of the year. ("It has more life inside it than ten very good novels," raved the New York Times Book Review in a much-coveted cover review.) That, however, is what O'Neill has done with "Netherland," his chronicle of a married couple in Manhattan struggling to hold their lives together following the September 11 attacks. We have already had a flurry of so-called 9/11 novels, many of them straining to recapture the horror of the moment, and the gravity of its aftermath. "Netherland" shows the value of allowing some distance to accumulate before an artist attempts to tackle a major historical event. The attacks of 2001 are of profound importance to "Netherland," but really the novel is about a man struggling to cope as his life falls apart around him. It is also a lovely portrait of Manhattan, which, though it has endured an apocalyptic moment, still mesmerizes O'Neill's protagonist, a Dutchman named Hans. "Sometimes to walk in shaded parts of Manhattan is to be inserted into a Magritte [painting]: the street is night while the sky is day," O'Neill writes in one typical passage. Then his observations move inward. "If I was indeed embracing an American lot, then I was doing so unprogrammatically, even unknowingly. Perhaps the relevant truth ... is that we all find ourselves in temporal currents and that unless you're paying attention you'll discover, often too late, that an undertow of weeks or of years has pulled you deep into trouble." Given the largeness of O'Neill's themes - terror, the disintegration of a marriage, the struggle against history - his language is generally quite subdued. I'm not quite sure "Netherland" is as brilliant as many critics have noted, but it is still brilliant. ($23.95 / 256 pages / Pantheon)
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