Nine years ago, Joseph O'Neill, a half-Irish, half-Turkish British barrister, with two novels to his credit, abandoned his legal career and watched his third book, a family memoir, disappear into a vacuum. Or, in O'Neill's words, "get erased by 9/11."
"There was no cultural oxygen for this kind of book," O'Neill tells PW about the reception for Blood-Dark Track: A Family History, published by Granta in the fall of 2001. "It never really surfaced in the States."
"This kind of book," as O'Neill puts it, is not only a memoir but a lawyerly analysis of terrorism and political subterfuge as it threads its way through two family histories—that of the Cork-based O'Neills of the author's father and the Turkish relatives on his mother's side—the Dakads. Among O'Neill's many tasks in tracing his mixed lineage was understanding how both grandfathers ended up being imprisoned by the British in the 1940s. In doing so, he encounters the truth of the O'Neill family's radical Irish republicanism as well as his grandfather Dakad's mysterious commercial dealings during the German occupation of Turkey in WWII.
The world has certainly changed since 9/11, and so has the profile of O'Neill; as a result, Blood-Dark is getting what few books get—a second chance.
"We decided to treat this book almost as if it were a paperback original," says LuAnn Walther, executive editor at Vintage, which published Blood-Dark this week. "In its first life, people just didn't know about it."
And at the time, people knew little about O'Neill. But that all changed two years ago when O'Neill's third novel, Netherland (Pantheon), appeared to the kind of enormous praise that once in a while surprises and delights the industry. PW, in a starred review, called it "an outsider's view of New York bursting with wisdom, authenticity and a sobering jolt of realism." Two months later, Dwight Garner, in the May 18 New York Times Book Review, called it "the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we've yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell." Then the New Yorker's James Wood weighed in: "[t]his exquisitely written novel [is] one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read." Prizes and best-book lists followed. By the time President Obama was seen carrying around the paperback of Netherland shortly after taking over the Oval Office, O'Neill was a literary celebrity.
When O'Neill's agent, David McCormick, was negotiating for O'Neill's next novel with Pantheon's Deborah Garrison, the topic of his backlist came up. Walther at Vintage—which has sold 200,000 copies of Netherland in paperback to date—was eager to add the memoir to the Vintage list. "We decided it was a piece of his backlist we really wanted to pick up because it was so politically rich and would be interesting to the readers of Netherland. It shows in greater detail who this author is. So we folded it into the deal for the novel."
Salient Then and Now
It is perhaps ironic that a memoir "erased" by the events of 9/11 should be republished thanks to a novel about 9/11 by the same author, but that's what happened. "The memoir," says O'Neill, who meets PW on a bright afternoon in a dark, empty bar in his Chelsea neighborhood, "should have been all the more salient then, when it was published, but it remains of constant relevance for us now to inquire as to how the individual conscience should react to political developments." In conversation, it is clear that O'Neill must've been a helluva barrister, unspooling long, sinuous sentences off the cuff that manage to make complex arguments. "How does an individual insert himself into a contested political culture? We have the Tea Party now as a manifestation of this activist impulse—and in many ways not a bad one, in that it is an energy of engagement. In my point of view, the moral test of activism is in the activity itself: is it engaged or is it a destructive expression of enmity?"
In Blood-Dark, O'Neill disturbs the silences of the O'Neill family with respect to their IRA activities in the 1930s and '40s. The inquisitive Joseph—who was raised, for the most part, in the Netherlands—returns to Cork to ask questions. His discovery that several O'Neills were involved in the murder of a British official is a bit of a shock, but the intrepid author subjects such activities to a moral analysis: was it justified?
"It is relevant today," he says of his memoir. "Or I should hope so."
Indeed, citizens confused about the purposes and intent of terrorism will find a good deal of hard-won clarity on the matter in Blood-Dark. For fans of Netherland, the memoir offers a large dose of the vivid O'Neill style and granular detail about his ancestry. As for the next novel, O'Neill will only say, "I'm writing it. It's years away."