Ten years ago, Joseph O’Neill published a novel that everyone made sure to compare to The Great Gatsby. It’s not that the connection wasn’t there. Netherland’s narrator, an expatriate Dutch banker adrift in just-post-9/11 New York City, befriends a shady Indo-Trinidadian immigrant. They bond over cricket. The immigrant, a dreamer and schemer named Khamraj “Chuck” Ramkissoon, winds up dead in the Gowanus Canal. So far, so Gatsby. But the book’s enchanting power lay in how unlike Gatsby — in how unlike anything else — it really was. It granted the reader entrée into an alien milieu, not only of cricket but also of the whole potent, bewildering experience of newcomers to America.
It would be unfair to expect a writer to repeat such a lightning-strike performance as that. Yet it is hard not to feel, reading the stories collected in O’Neill’s Good Trouble, that he is suffering from the complacency of so many keenly observant storytellers: He doesn’t have to range very far for material he can put to good use, and so he seems content not to. As Hans van den Broek, the narrator of Netherland, puts it in another context, “I’m liable to misplace my sensitivities.”
And so the first story in Good Trouble, “Pardon Edward Snowden,” is about poets, minor ones, the petty and pointlessly competitive sort. The second, “The Trusted Traveler,” is about a retired teacher enduring a visit from an admiring but slightly obnoxious former student. So slightly, it is worth noting, that we more or less have to take the narrator’s word for it. “The Referees” is about a man trying without much success to secure letters of reference for a co-op board. “The Death of Billy Joel” is about a group of friends, middle-aged professional men, who go on a golf vacation and at one point come to the mistaken if not particularly devastating belief that Billy Joel has died.
We are, needless to say, a long way from the dead immigrant in the Gowanus Canal. Even those stories that manage to build tension end up deflating with a hiss of anticlimax. In “The World of Cheese,” a woman in the throes of a family crisis — though these are “throes” only in the same limited sense that a tiresome dinner guest is to be “endured” — thinks about seeking a one-night stand but decides against it. “The Poltroon Husband” lets his wife go downstairs to investigate a nocturnal sound; the intruder, much like the husband’s courage, turns out to be nonexistent. “The Sinking of the Houston” is virtually the same story: a man, empowered by a smartphone-tracking app to locate and exact revenge upon his son’s mugger, instead lets himself get sidetracked.
There is more to each of these stories than these cursory descriptions suggest. “The Trusted Traveler,” uneventful though it may be, ingeniously illustrates the way we come to guard our time more jealously, even at the expense of civility, as we feel it growing more scarce. Both “The Poltroon Husband” and “The Sinking of the Houston” show a kind of atrophied modern masculinity for what it is and bid us laugh at it. One man seeks an elaborate excuse for his cowardice; the other at least has the good taste to fantasize about being tough.
In both cases O’Neill achieves cruel comic flourishes. Here is Man No. 1: “I was overcome by a dreamlike inertness. I was not experiencing fear as such. I have been afraid and know what it is to be afraid. This wasn’t that. This was what I’d call an oneiric paralysis. . . . It may be, because Jayne is given to worry, that it would be best if I protected her from learning about a biobehavioral ailment of such troubling neurophysiological dimensions.” Man No. 2: “It may be said — and in truth it is said, by a whispering imaginary skeptic — that there’s no way a fifty-one-year-old man can take down a tattooed career criminal, a hoodlum Moriarty, twenty years his junior. To which I respond: Let’s wait and see.”
“Pardon Edward Snowden” is also quite funny at the expense of mediocrity. The great moral dilemma its protagonist, Mark, faces is whether to sign an embarrassing “poetition,” a petition in verse, which O’Neill makes all the more ridiculous by listing its rhymes — e.g., “‘Putin’ and ‘boot in’ and ‘Clinton’ and ‘no disputing’” — rather than quoting it directly. An even more scathing moment comes when Mark, who hasn’t “produced, or even wanted to produce, a word of poetry” in months, is taunted by a fiction-writing friend with a poem — which O’Neill quotes in full — no less plausibly competent for being dashed off. (Mark determines this by presenting it to a colleague, as his own work, for critique.) The story ends with Mark getting his creative groove back, after a fashion. Yet this moment of illumination feels like a tacked-on excuse for O’Neill’s ridicule, a way of anticipating the criticism that these poets are not truly objects of their creator’s moral sympathy.
The fact is that many lives, in the sight of a sophisticated observer — say, a fiction writer — look like small, silly, doomed enterprises. Many of the conversations one overhears in the course of a day savor of self-deception, of un-self-awareness, of insecurities and anxieties poorly concealed. O’Neill is good at reminding us that he takes notice of such things. But noticing is only half the battle. It is reportage, not art — Tom Wolfe, not Tolstoy. Here is how O’Neill wraps up his impeccably rendered, uncannily-plausible-in-every-particular golf trip:
Tom continues walking down Fifth Avenue. It’s cold. Ice is piled up everywhere. He has twelve days left before he’s forty. Tom perceives — as, apprehending the anniversary as a deadline, he begins to walk faster — that he must in the meantime understand, somehow or other, to soap himself with the shriveling world.
This is, to take the exacting view of O’Neill that he does of his own characters, the short-story equivalent of that “fake” poem meant to prove that writing poetry isn’t quite the artistic Everest ascent that it’s made out to be. It would take some doing to create a less compelling depiction of a midlife crisis, with a more awkward concluding image. It doesn’t help that O’Neill places us back in Manhattan, where we can practically hear a narrator intone, “There are 8 million stories in the naked city: The other 7,999,999 are better, I swear.” Is this what comes of resting on one’s laurels? Is this laziness?
It would be reassuring to take O’Neill’s snapshots of life — a certain type of life, anyway — in the 21st century as a warning. This is Tom. Tom is bored because Tom is boring. Don’t be like Tom. But then, the Toms of the world have rarely made great subjects for fiction, at least not until they begin to champ at their invisible bits. The narrator of O’Neill’s Netherland did so, and that book had something in it of the turbulent promise of life in America. The miniatures in Good Trouble are more like snow globes, and they could use a good shaking up — or a shattering.