Reading Into Obama's Bedside Book Selection

WASHINGTON - Here’s a small but revealing sliver of news concerning our cool, hard-to-fathom president: According to his closest advisor, David Axelrod, Barack Obama really likes the novel he’s reading right now. In fact, he likes it “a lot.”

It’s the first non-business reading he’s allowed himself since Inauguration Day.

The First Novel for the First Reader (revealed by David Leonhardt in The New York Times) is “Netherland,” by Joseph O’Neill — an Irishman schooled in Holland and Britain and now living in New York City. It’s a much-praised, elegantly written, alternately inspiring, and grim portrait of present-day Gotham.

O’Neill sees New York as an anything-goes metropolis, teeming with immigrants of color who yearn to live the American Dream, but do so in the face of corruption, post-9/11 fear, and civic decay.

Their proud will is endearing, even monumental, and is symbolized by a comical devotion to donning whites and playing cricket in scruffy parks.

They feast on abundant ethnic food at their raucous, post-match picnics.

But the brooding, elegiac mood beneath the surface teems with doubt — doubt that these lovable strivers will make it.

There’s also the question of whether or not the country will recapture its original power and glory.

Netherland — a double play-on-words evoking the mythic underworld and the city’s Dutch origins — feels rather post-apocalyptic. Which, truth be told, the city did feel like, and perhaps still does.

Is a book just a book?
Now, it’s difficult (and risky) to interpret a person’s worldview from the books he or she is reading. Sometimes, a book is just a book. But “Netherland” deserves a closer look for a couple of reasons.

Axelrod told me that Obama picked it up after reading a favorable review. Perhaps, but Ax & Co. leave nothing to chance when it comes to Obama’s image.

Also, the president is a best-selling author. He writes his own stuff. He’s a literary guy. He’s known to have dabbled in poetry. And he’s got a craftsman’s reverence for language and observation.

So let’s have a look.

First, we should be glad that Obama thinks the country is in good enough shape to escape it for a few hours of light reading — or at least good enough that he can afford to divulge the details of his leisure time.

Second, it's an unsparing portrait — and it can't be bad to have a realistic president willing to look at one.

And if the book reflects his view of America and the world — and I think it does — it’s a good, reassuring thing.

Celebrating diversity
“Netherland” celebrates our diversity and vividly portrays its positive, uplifting, and energizing impact on our country.

The narrator, a Dutch-born, London-based investment bank researcher, comes to New York with his wife and young son and, in the aftermath of 9/11, finds companionship, solace, and joy in the company of an ecletic stew of cricketers, including Pakistanis, Indians, and West Indians of all sorts.

Sports are a great leveler and cultural unifier in America — and O’Neill, like the president himself, extols this. Among these players, color doesn’t matter — even if the narrator is the only white man holding a bat.

The most vivid character among them — the tragically doomed hero — is a Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon.

He is equal parts Horatio Alger, P.T. Barnum, Nathan Detroit, and Sammy Glick: a brilliantly self-educated entrepreneur who juggles a wife and girlfriend, gives long disquisitions on exotic birds inhabiting the five boroughs, masters (and profits from) the intricacies of selling kosher seafood, and runs numbers on the side in apparent defiance of established criminal organizations.

Most of these characters (Chuck is an ambiguous exception) don’t want to cut corners. They don’t want to get in trouble. They adore the freedom and opportunity America has to offer. And they’re always trying — whilst wearing their New York Yankees baseball caps — to build lives for themselves and their families. 

They believe in the possibilities of remaking themselves in America — a faith in the future that the narrator contrasts with the self-satisfaction and constricted hopes of Londoners.

In New York, he says, “selfhood’s hill always seemed to lie ahead, and to promise a glimpse of further, higher peaks: that you might have no climbing boots to hand was beside the point.”

Rewarding good-hearted people
These are the folks and this is the thinking that Obama wants to reward and encourage: good-hearted people who work hard, make do with little so that their kids can do better, and who deserve a “boots” government that can help provide education, college tuition, health care, and tax cuts.

If you want to see whom Obama thinks he’s working for and inspired by, read this book.

There are some things about the book that might make me worry if I thought Obama agreed with them.

O’Neill’s paean to diversity lapses into the bizarre — the Chelsea Hotel, where the narrator and his family stay after 9/11 — is a Mardi Gras of near madness. It’s as if to say that New York can only be understood as a never-ending nightmare.

The book largely ignores institutions and groups who were, and in many ways remain, the sinews of the city’s old greatness. The ethnic mainstays — the American WASPS, the Irish cops and firemen, the long-established, educated Jews of the city and suburbs (and their education-obsessed Asian competitors) are all but invisible in O’Neill’s survey. So is the government. The absurdly bureaucratic Department of Motor Vehicles, the wailing police sirens, a ramshackle parks department, and the Staten Island ferry are the only evidence we see.

The closest thing to a villain in “Netherland” is a thuggish Russian-Jewish “businessman” named Abelsky, who partners with the doomed hero (he ends up dead and floating in the Gowanus Canal). The narrator says he doesn’t suspect Abelsky, and adds that the hero was secretly up to no good.

But the reader is primed to suspect Abelsky anyway.

The book has been compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”

I assume that O’Neill’s fans aren’t referring to the way he, like Fitzgerald, pins the city’s dishonorable instincts on a thug with a Jewish name.

But I’ll say this for O’Neill. His narrator, seasoned and made wiser by his time in New York, returns to London, a sadder but fuller man for his time in the chaotic land of “openness” and possibility.

The author of “Netherland” made a different choice, one that Obama, the self-described “son of “Kenya and Kansas," understands and I know heartedly endorses. He’s living here.

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