Subscriber OnlyBooks

Joseph O’Neill: ‘Trump will go after the big cities ... And it will be 10 times worse than people imagine’

After writing his first novel in a decade, the author discusses everything from the evolution of hurling and his ‘idealised relationship’ with footbalI to why he fears ‘having Caligula in the White House’

Joseph O’Neill, whose new novel, Godwin, is ambitious, original and very funny. Photograph: Ahmed Gaber/New York Times

“I think it will be disastrous beyond most people’s contemplation,” Joseph O’Neill says, his features darkening at the prospect of a second US presidential term for Donald Trump.

It’s late afternoon in the home in the Crown Heights neighbourhood of Brooklyn that he shares with his partner, the novelist and essayist Rivka Galchen, and their daughter, Georgie. A light breeze drifts through the open window in the livingroom, where the family dogs, Nettle and Pom-Pom, both out-and-out socialites, are paws-up on the sill and masquerading as guard dogs. The weather is beautiful.

O’Neill has a new novel out, Godwin, his first in a decade. It’s ambitious and original and very funny. His recuperation from meniscus surgery – the legacy of chasing the thrills of cricket and soccer through middle age – is going well. He potters about the kitchen in leisurewear and flip-flops, making coffee, and is quick to laugh. But the humour, delivered in a cut-glass English accent and laced with warm, distinctly Irish humour directed mostly at himself, disguises a view of the world that, he allows, leans into the bleak.

The potential of a Trump return to the White House is enough to render him sleepless through the arriving summer nights of New York humidity – and gravely worried about the country his children will inherit.


“First of all, I think he will irreparably damage the Democratic Party,” O’Neill says. “He will go after everybody. He has this plan, [Project] 2025. And he will do enormous damage to international law. He’ll go after the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, with support from Democrats in the pay of Aipac” – the American Israel Public Affairs Political Action Committee. “People will lose faith in the Democratic Party when they realise how enfeebled they are. I think the situation in Palestine will be 10 times worse. I think there will be an international axis of despotic powers. It will be a disaster for the global climate. He is a psychopath. He will try to ban wind turbines. There is a chance he will try to replace Alito and Thomas with ... 37-year-old fascists, essentially,” O’Neill says, referring to the ageing US supreme-court justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.

This is late into a meandering conversation in which the writer, it seems, is perfectly happy to talk about Godwin, a clever, dark comedy about the foibles of a would-be soccer agent chasing after the ghost – as seen on a grainy snatch of video – of a future African Lionel Messi. But he’s so easy-going about it, and so engaged with other topics, that it appears as if he would not be bothered were we not to mention the novel at all.

O’Neill has been living in New York since moving to the city from London with his then wife, the editor Sally Singer, in the early 2000s. When his third novel, Netherland, bloomed into a publishing event, in 2008, O’Neill’s exotic background became a sort of side dish to the rapturous reviews and the profiles. It was a rich, memorable book that caught the post-9/11 disquiet and restlessness that took hold through the boroughs of New York: it’s a portrait of the city as viewed through the keyhole of its immigrant cricket scene.

O’Neill’s mother is Turkish, his father a Corkman. Both are hale and living now in London. He grew up in the Netherlands and went to Cambridge to study law. A comfortable career at the bar beckoned, but he was waylaid by an irresistible urge to write novels. O’Neill is understandably perplexed when he is hit with the most common question – where are you from? – but it is safe to say that, by now, he is a New Yorker.

Joseph O'Neill says he insists on having an idealised relationship with football. Photograph: Ahmed Gaber/The New York Times

Still. Cork is Cork. I am hardly through the door and dealing with the enthusiastic greeting from Nettle and Pom-Pom when he wants to know how the Rebels are getting on in the All-Ireland hurling championship. Talk turns to hurling heritage and an immortal photograph of Christy Ring and Robert F Kennedy at Gaelic Park in the mid-1960s. “My father hurled with Ring,” O’Neill says with a hint of pride before more quizzing about the contemporary game: “What’s the standard like? It’s been years since I saw a game. I’m sure it’s amazing.”

He listens carefully to a condensed account of the physical size and speed of contemporary hurling squads and Limerick’s quest for five. “So it’s gone like rugby. My God. The thing about hurling I used to love – and I occasionally played it – is that it was kind of a bat-and-ball game. It wasn’t so much an athletic game. Now it sounds like more of an athlete’s game.”

From there he moves to the transformation of rugby, which, we agree, has lost the magical quality of elusiveness. He touches on Irish rugby heroes of yesteryear: Ollie Campbell, Simon Geoghegan, an incandescent figure in a murky time, and Hugo MacNeill, whom O’Neill would occasionally see having lunch around Camden during the years when he was at Lincoln’s Inn as a young barrister. He is equally in tune with the Charlton-era soccer teams. The era-specific references reflect the visits of someone who hasn’t been back to Cork in a while.

“Not in years,” he says. “After my grandmother died I stopped having a base to go back to. I am not a Dublin expert. It was always Cork. And, as you know, Cork is the centre of the universe. My relatives always knew us as the exotic cousins. My dad was the only one to fully exit the city.”

The cousins must have looked at him with a touch of pity that he was denied the right of the full pleasure of living in Cork. “Yes! You can’t have everything,” O’Neill agrees cheerfully.

Mark Wolfe, the main character in Godwin, has a complex relationship with family and place. An enigmatic figure in a technical-writing co-operative, he finds his curiosity piqued when his half-brother, Geoff, a cockney loafer and putative football agent, inveigles him into coming to London. The trip is the beginning of an adventure that also takes the reader to Benin and, best of all, through the netherworld of the European soccer culture of the 1980s as told by Jean-Luc Lefebvre, an ageing football man still intent on the career-defining discovery.

The novel’s alternate narrator is Lakesha Williams, a colleague of Wolfe’s in the Pittsburgh co-operative, who becomes embroiled in an episode of internal politicking that shakes her faith in the integrity of their system. That parallel story of proxy votes and committee tension is equally compelling. In short, most people would struggle to easily explain what Godwin is about.

“So do I,” O’Neill says with a sigh. “I guess it’s a story of two brothers. And, em, the dream of finding – unearthing, discovering – you know, a new player. So there is that sort of buccaneering idea. And then it also became about the opposite, which is the conception of life as not this jackpot-type narrative but one of co-operation, mutual care. So it is about where our values are.

“The first thing is that it is an adventure story. I taught the adventure story” – at Bard, the liberal-arts college in upstate New York – “Robert Louis Stevenson and all that. Lakesha, on the one hand, is an icon of co-operation, but she is also blindsided by her own ideals. It just takes one actor of bad faith to bring things down. In the most geopolitical sense, it is about the relationship between the colonial impulse, which is deeply money-oriented. And eventually Wolfe joins his family because there is money in it.

“But, see, I don’t have a thesis. What I am trying to do is write something sufficiently entertaining that people will read it – and, also, that is sufficiently not-terrible that people will think, Hold on, maybe I should apply some interpretative pressure to it. Because not every book has that.”

Godwin is a crowded book that brushes against a broad range of sweeping themes: white privilege, postcolonialism, family, exile. Early reviews, generally admiring, have also at times been perplexed as to what exactly O’Neill is up to. One long piece expresses keen regret that he didn’t just follow Lefebvre and Wolfe on a football skite. It’s understandable, because Lefebvre – ailing, oily, charismatic – is a vivid creation containing echoes of Philip Roth’s Mickey Sabbath, except that football is his obsession.

Joseph O'Neill, who could have made his living as a barrister, but not a 'top-notch' one. Photograph: Ahmed Gaber/The New York Times

“Well, you know that guy. He is somehow at the squash-club or golf-club bar. And nobody has ever seen him play golf. He is slightly repulsive ... With Geoff, I just borrowed his speech. I haven’t been to London for years, but I have been watching Man United fan channels. There’s a guy called Rants. He’s a sort of black cockney Jamaican guy and controversial. But he has this way of talking – ‘fam’, ‘blood’, 100 per cent’ – and that slang Geoff has is exactly 2015. It is probably out of date by now. And Jean-Luc is just this Conradian monologue.”

If there are Brooklyn bars showing English Premier League games – ironically or otherwise – O’Neill doesn’t know of them. He has a host of streams through which he follows Manchester United. There are sections of Godwin that are glorious odes to lost European nights in northwestern Europe. O’Neill himself grew up in the Netherlands of the 1970s repeatedly listening to an “an LP of the 1968 European Cup final. It was a radio phenomenon then, those nights in Europe”.

When he was six he wrote a letter to Frank O’Farrell, fellow Corkonian and much put-upon United manager, to express his displeasure at the way the season was going. He suspects his parents never posted it. You get the sense that O’Neill could give a serious off-the-cuff lecture on the joys of Dutch football, local and national, in the 1980s. He has never been to Old Trafford, but when he studied at Cambridge he regularly saw the Keane-Cantona iteration of United when they’d play at Highbury or Stamford Bridge. His youngest child, Georgie, is named after Best. “She doesn’t know that’s why she’s called that,” he says, laughing.

O’Neill is friends with Sue Carr, who, as lady chief justice, is head of the judiciary of England and Wales; her family were an integral part of Arsenal football back when English clubs were locally owned and organised. O’Neill has an immaculate speaking voice and is clearly wedded to substantive debate: the more obvious life in law would surely have been a smooth passage for him. He did his pupillage at Tony Blair’s chambers. But something within him resisted that path.

“Honestly, legal studies ... It’s an exam-based system. You can cram it all in a few weeks beforehand. I am walking testimony to that. A barrister is a different thing. I was fortunate to work with very good barristers who became very distinguished, and they were on a different level of lawyering to me. I could just tell. They were just committed to it. Their inner life was given over to it. It is like getting into the top, top sports teams. After a while you know who will fall by the wayside. I would always have had a good practice. But I wasn’t top-notch.”

When he moved to New York he had written two novels and a memoir, Blood-Dark Track, about his Turkish and Irish grandfathers, both revolutionaries. “Which was a critical success, I think you could say, but wasn’t exactly a passport to fame and fortune. I had an Irish editor for that, Neil Belton. A great guy.”

But he was without a publisher or agent when he set about writing the unbidden post-9/11 New York cricket novel. He and Singer were living in the Chelsea hotel with three young boys, Malachy, Pascal and Oscar. It was all very boho, but the practical truth was that it was also one of the few places they could rent when they arrived in New York without having a credit history.

“They either like the cut of your jib or they don’t. It was all done rather randomly. And it was a great spot to live. There were other families there too.” O’Neill points to a photograph on the bookshelves. “Those are my three boys in the Chelsea ... One has graduated and two are in college. I was there quite recently. The owners have gone. And the whole thing was a kind of accidental social experiment carried out by the Bard family. And it is now a very fancy hotel.”

When Netherland went supernova, the living-in-the-Chelsea stuff became part of the detail of the O’Neill story. The book was a sensation: lauded by James Wood, the New Yorker magazine’s book critic, as a postcolonial reworking of The Great Gatsby; namechecked, as president, by Barack Obama; and scandalising fans when it was omitted from the 2008 Booker shortlist. (It had been favourite to win outright.) And nobody knew it then, but it was one of the last times a work of fiction would push itself to the centre of the New York cultural conversation. O’Neill is dubious that book reviews have retained the detonating power of Wood’s appraisal 16 years ago.

“I don’t think they do. I was lucky. That book ... first of all, it was received as a novel by a new writer. And people were invested in it. But it was 2008 ... people were still reading books, and I don’t think reading culture had been decimated to the extent it is now. The phone had not arrived. You know, Martin Amis’s memorial is this week. And I wish I could be there [in London], and I can’t, obviously. But it almost feels like the end of an era. Of the writer as a major cultural protagonist. In US pop culture right now, writers are like volleyball players or minor-league hockey players.”

O’Neill delivers this matter-of-factly. He responded to the flashbulbs and acclaim of 2008 by publishing one novel over the next 16 years, forsaking invitations to New York literary events and doing his own thing. He’s not sure he will ever write another novel.

“I am not prolific. I am in awe of writers who are. People like Colm Tóibín. This incessant contribution to the world of letters. It is very important. And I feel like, for him, it is almost a responsibility, a sense of vocation. My own sense of vocation ... is not what it was.”

Trump will go after the big cities with the support of local police forces ... And it will be 10 times worse than people imagine. Not just for the United States but for the world order. He is crazy

The European soccer championship will help him pass the time as he recuperates from surgery. Although Godwin acts as a moral fable about the cynicism and corruption at the heart of the signing and trading of the elite game, with the insane transfer costs and agents’ fees – Benin, where he places the elusive Godwin, is part of the former slave coast of west Africa – O’Neill is no nostalgist for the 20th-century version of English football.

He much prefers the contemporary game. “I like modern-day football because the standard is so high. And I am also conscious that the rest of the world is going to crap, and I insist on having this one idealised relationship with football. I am not going to let the darkness in. There has to be some shaft of light. And it hasn’t yet succumbed to cheating. Do I hate the Glazers? Yes. But a lot of United fans hate them and don’t even understand how reprehensible they are. They don’t understand the depravity of the American billionaire class. If you offered them enough money they would turn Manchester United into a fried-chicken outfit.”

There’s a sense of the beautiful game playing a cosmic joke on O’Neill if following United through the past few years has been a shaft of celestial light. But the consolation of soccer is that there is always next season. The players – Best, Keane, Rooney – come and go, but the club, the game, is immortal. O’Neill is less certain about the future of the United States, given the menacing winter he fears awaits it. He speaks in a fervent burst about the dismal state of the Democratic Party.

Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill – Poised comedy and subtle psychologyOpens in new window ]

“I was shocked when I started paying close attention to who the elected Democrats were. I was obviously naive. But I was stunned at the corruption and how disconnected they are from their voters and how they are so protected by this fiction that they are good-faith public servants. These guys don’t even wake up thinking about Republicans. Biden was elected by the Blue Wave,” O’Neill says, referring to the on-the-ground small-donations and voting movement. “He was the fortunate benefactor of this incredible grassroots coalition formed by the Indivisibles and all these groups and ActBlue – over $4 billion donated in the 2020 cycle.

“But once Biden and co were elected, they refused to accept that the way to win elections was to be a movement party. And they went back to their own ways even after the attempted coup,” when the US Capitol was stormed on January 6th, 2021. “Their policies were good. The United States is the most successful economy in the world. But, on the other hand, they just didn’t understand because they are DC veterans.

Joseph O’Neill on the culture wars: ‘Everyone wants to be the accuser’ (2018)Opens in new window ]

“It is such a crazy country now for all kinds of internet reasons. Obama’s mantra was: take care of the policies and the politics will take care of themselves. It is so not true. And Obama himself ... he was an iconic, charismatic guy, but nobody could remember what he did. He didn’t even understand why he had won. Biden didn’t understand why he had won. They were all drinking the Kool-Aid from consultants ... And they are so careerist that the most threatening person is the one person who will say: ‘Why don’t we do it differently?’”

Is there even one political figure in whom he has faith?

“AOC,” he says immediately, referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York City congresswoman. “She’s brilliant.” And what will become of her? “That’s a good question. I don’t know. But she is very young.”

Outside, in the pulsing heat, the scene is as ever along the thoroughfare near Kingston Avenue subway station: music coming from the restaurants, bars and stores; smokers smoking; parents on school pickups; and the heat making everyone move that bit more slowly. But O’Neill shakes his head at the idea that Brooklyn won’t change much irrespective of the next administration, that it will remain a refuge for international hipsterism and multiethnicity and poetry, good and bad.

“Go to Hungary. What is life like there these days?” he says with a shrug. Trump “will go after the big cities with the support of local police forces. I think they will go house to house for undocumented immigrants. And it will be 10 times worse than people imagine. Not just for the United States but for the world order. He is crazy. It is like having Caligula in the White House. And he will be opposed by Vichy Democrats. There will be protests ... but the political system is not fit for purpose. It is not designed to stop authoritarianism. And I am very worried.”

Godwin, by Joseph O’Neill, is published by Fourth Estate