I sprinted to buy Nick Laird’s Utterly Monkey after reading the NYT book review that I posted about in January.
Those NYT book reviewers sure know how to sucker me into reading their reviews every time. It’s all about that provocative beginning. The review for this book began:
Question: what do you get if you combine the TV series “The Office” and the Guy Ritchie movie “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” with a Nick Hornby novel and the Kingsley Amis classic, “Lucky Jim”?
My answer to the question was, “I get the book”. I am unfamiliar with the Kingsley Amis book, but these other influence are all in my wheelhouse (I assumed a reference to the “good” Hornby novels). The actual book was different than that NYT quote would have led me to believe, but it was still quite good.
The story centers on two friends, Danny and Geordie. Danny has escaped his small town in Northern Ireland and “the troubles”. He’s a successful London attorney whose not real sure why he became a lawyer. He’s just broken up with his girlfriend, and he doesn’t seem to be real sure why he’s done that either. Into this existential twenty-something malaise comes Geordie, an acquaintance from back home who has none of Danny’s polish or charm. Geordie’s arrival in London is not a voluntary vacation, and trouble follows him to Danny’s sanitized world.
Shortly after Geordie arrives, Danny has to return to Northern Ireland for business. He hadn’t been back home since leaving for college. He is shocked at the Belfast that he finds on his homecoming. Since peace has broken out back home, shops are thriving and people are eating outdoors at cafes. This kind of carefree Northern Irish existence seems unimaginable to Danny, as he checks himself into The Europa, Europe’s most bombed hotel (20+ times).
For me, it was the Ireland part of the story that was the most compelling. In a throwaway observation, Laird talks about the impact of the new peace on sectarian “mom and pop” shops. Where before Catholic and Protestant pharmacies, grocers, etc. existed side by side, now there are unaffiliated big box stores that carry a huge variety and less expensive goods. As the mom and pop shops start to go under, the confused populace considers sending a letter to their respective boards of directors to find out if the new giant hardware supercenter is Catholic or Protestant. I could have read a whole book about that kind of thing.
The book is a lot of things. It has elements of the political, as noted above. It has a Grisham-esque legal component. A caper-ish thriller. All with a feel good stick-it-to-the-man ending. Mrs. Cayenne is reading the book now. She says that it is definitely a “guys book”, but she is really enjoying it – so go figure.
Laird clearly has talent to spare. One day he’ll write a masterpiece, but this isn’t it. Which isn’t to say that this book isn’t totally enjoyable – it is – but you can see the promise of greater things on its pages. The book is filled with humor and is very well written. It is also a very British book. There were parts where I didn’t understand references to the descriptions of everyday British life. This was part of the book’s charm for me, but it may have been because I have a British edition of the book (it is what showed up used from Amazon). The spellings are filled with “tyres” turned into towards the “kerbs”, etc. I, for one, totally dig that. I don’t like it when books that are set in Britain use obviously American spellings or phrases – it feels dumbed down or like cultural imperialism. So I hope the American editions preserve some of that. I also learned that in England, apparently, one gets a job at the law firm first, gets some on the job training, and then one goes to law school. Something of interest for the legal scholars on the BGB rolls.
Nick Laird is a former attorney, which may fuel some of his obvious contempt for legal workplaces (the source of the comparisons to The Office by the NYT reviewer). He’s also the husband of personal fave Zadie Smith. Prior to writing this novel, he was also a prize-winning poet. And he’s in his early thirties. Anyway, now I guess I need to find out more about this Kingsley Amis classic, Lucky Jim.