The green shows in this first novel A way with words, not events

Posted: January 25, 2006

Utterly Monkey

Nick Laird

Harper Perennial. 344 pp. $13.95

Reviewed by David Hiltbrand

Inquirer Staff Writer

As the spouse of It novelist Zadie Smith, Nick Laird is famous by association - which means his first novel, the slender but diverting Utterly Monkey, is getting reviewed far more extensively than it normally would. Take that to heart, aspiring writers, and marry up.

This is the tale of Danny Williams, who grew up hardscrabble in Northern Ireland and is now working, with some qualms, as a lawyer in London. "He was now a two-and-a-half year qualified solicitor-advocate in the Commercial Litigation department specializing in International Arbitration. Danny sometimes thought that the only job worth doing was one covered by one word. Plumber. Joiner. Farmer."

On my map, Danny's hometown of Ballyglass is in far western Ireland, in County Mayo. In the book, it has apparently shifted out of the Republic entirely. Geographical confusion aside, Danny's past and present collide when Geordie, an old school pal, shows up unannounced, looking for a place to crash. Simultaneously, Danny is assigned to oversee a client's corporate takeover of the Ulster Water Co.

The case means Danny must travel back to Belfast on the July 12 weekend, when Protestants parade to commemorate the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The title of the novel stems from an old, embarrassing joke between Danny and Geordie and alludes to an ugly or crude girl. The retelling of the origin of the phrase leads to a fight at a drunken party that is the book's central scene.

Many of the references and idioms will be incomprehensible to the American reader - for instance, this description of three businessmen in a pub: "The fat one rubbed his thumb and first two fingers together while pursing his lips and lowering his eyebrows so his phizog was puckered in close, as if he were trying to squeeze his facial features through a bangle."

Other descriptions, though foreign, are still familiar and quite lovely, such as Laird's ode to a pint of Guinness: "It is difficult to get going on a Guinness. There is nothing aesthetic about other refreshments. Lager and cider just slop in their glasses, fizzing at you to get at it, to raise it and down it. Guinness is complete in itself. The first sip is like cutting a wedding cake. After the measured pouring, then the storm in a pint glass, the spindrift apartheid of grains and galaxies settling."

Laird is at his best evoking childhood memories and the modern office environment. He's less satisfying at creating a credible romance.

The real problem with Utterly Monkey is that it's not a very eventful narrative. The two major decisions that Danny eventually makes are remarkably irrational and unlawyerly. Consider this a fun, fly-by glance at another world.

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com.

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