Fellow: Awarded 2010
Field of Study: Fiction
Competition: US & Canada
Joseph O’Neill is the author of the much-acclaimed novel Netherland (Pantheon, 2008), which earned him the PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction and Ireland’s Kerry Fiction Prize, as well as heady comparisons to John Updike, Richard Ford, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The protagonist of Netherland is Hans, a Dutch oil-stock analyst, who moves with his English wife and son to Manhattan; his wife, angered by President Bush’s response to the terrorists’ attack on September 11, subsequently leaves him and returns to England with their son. Depressed and suddenly on his own in post-9/11 New York, he muddles through each workweek and seeks solace in the Saturday cricket matches on Staten Island with other ex-pats, in particular a Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon, who keeps afloat with dodgy schemes (including an illegal gambling operation) and will-o’-the-wisp dreams of building a beautiful cricket stadium: “Think fantastic!” he tells Hans. But the story is more than a chronicle of Hans’ eventual pulling away from Chuck and the resurrection of his family life. Sean Hagan, writing in The Guardian (May 31, 2008), described it as a meditation on the Great American Dream, “but one with an ordinary European Everyman at its centre”; in its starred review, Publishers Weekly (May 3, 2008) praised it as “poignant” and “bursting with wisdom, authenticity and a sobering jolt of realism”; and Maureen Corrigan, reviewing it for NPR (July 2, 2008), concluded that with Netherland Mr. O’Neill “approaches the glow of greatness.”
Born in Cork, Ireland, of Irish and Turkish parentage, Joseph O’Neill was raised in The Netherlands where he attended international schools, summered in his mother’s hometown on the Mediterranean, and read law at Cambridge University, qualifying as a barrister and practicing law for eleven years; he now resides in New York City and is a citizen of both the United States and Ireland. His experiences as a barrister, his ancestry, and his cosmopolitanism have all provided grist for his writings. His first novel, This is the Life (Faber & Faber, Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1991), has a young attorney as its main character and the English Bar as its milieu, and the details about Trinidad and Trinidadians displayed in Netherland were culled from his work with Trinidadian death-row inmates in England.
But perhaps the work most deeply rooted in his own life is Blood-Dark Track (Granta, 2001), which he described as “a political history of [his] family.” In it, O’Neill recounts his research into the lives of his Irish and Turkish grandfathers, both of whom were interned during World War II, one in Ireland for his IRA activities, and the other in British and Free French military prisons on suspicion of being a spy for the Axis. Blood-Dark Track was named a Book of the Year by the Economist and the Irish Times, and the New York Times included it on its list of Notable Books of 2001.
Joseph O’Neill is also the author of the novel The Breezes (Faber & Faber, 1995), and during the late 1980s his poetry appeared in Poetry Review, Poetry Ireland Reivew, Spectator, and the Literary Review. His short fiction has been anthologized in Phoenix Irish Short Stories (1999), Dislocation: Stories from a New Ireland (2003), and Faber Book of Best New Irish Stories 2006-07 (2007). And Damion Searls’ English translation of Amsterdam Stories by the eminent Dutch author Nescio, to be published by NYRB Classics in 2012, will feature a forward by Mr. O’Neill.
During his Guggenheim Fellowship term, Mr. O’Neill will be working on his next novel, tentatively titled The Dubai Experience.