Floundering with Sharks
Nick Laird’s first novel launches with a splash
by Trace Bateman
Despite the dramatic difference in goals, a poet and a lawyer share the necessity to manipulate language. Nick Laird has been both, and the balance of passion versus duty reverberates throughout his first novel, Utterly Monkey .
For Danny Williams, the smart kid who moved on to university and eventually a London law firm, Geordie Wilson holds a childhood bond that cannot be wiped away by time, silence, or even dislike. The two grew up together in a small town in Northern Ireland, and as Danny got out, Geordie stayed behind and got caught in a life of low-level crime—something he wasn’t particularly good at. After one mistake too many, coupled with a relationship with the local muscle’s sister, Geordie takes off, stealing 50,000 pounds, to hide out and crash in on Danny, whom he hasn’t spoken to in almost a decade.
Danny, at first annoyed with Geordie’s presence, has his own less dangerous problems. Grappling with maturity, Danny stumbles past his 28th birthday. He’s overworked at a job he hates and exiting another failed relationship. Geordie’s appearance, over time, reminds Danny of his roots and, more importantly, the people that his work with corporate takeovers and acquisitions hurts. Enter the gorgeous Ellen, who comes to represent the elusive future that Danny doesn’t realize is ahead of him. She balances her interactions with a grace that Danny takes as reserve, but it’s actually a poise that holds its own secret.
For Geordie the story keeps getting worse. The money he took to finance his flight from danger turns out to draw the sharks close on his tail. On this flight to London, a chance encounter with a Northern Irish loyalist pulls Geordie and eventually Danny into a world of political terrorism.
Utterly Monkey is bound by the understanding of the perspective of its characters and their relationships. Each character takes a turn in explaining his position, and Laird takes advantage of this to express every idea from the foolish to the over-analyzed. He empathetically explores the plight of a fanatic, a screw-up, and a pawn, coming to the conclusion that a balance of ideals and conformity leads to fulfillment. Through his characters, Laird asserts that the passion of violent activism is overly indulgent, and a lack of ideals perpetuates floundering.
Danny Williams is the fictional mirror image of his creator. Laird came from Northern Ireland and, after passing through Cambridge, ended up at a law firm in London, which explains the way in which he deciphers the seemingly simple but actually loaded conversations of lawyers. Escaping the law firm and most likely with the encouragement of his wife, the accomplished writer Zadie Smith, Laird tried his hand at a book of poetry, To a Fault , which was widely received and critically acclaimed. His talent with the poetic form reveals itself within the novel’s language, nudging the momentum of the story and continuously reminding the reader of the beautiful capabilities of words.
Structurally, the most successful chapter in the novel revolves around Danny’s celebration of his birthday. In a cinematic style, the narrative winds its way through the party, the language playing like the camera moving through Danny’s house. Ellen stands off to the side, a disc jockey spins records, and the focus draws itself to the back of the flat where the action begins. Laird’s particular talent is in the understanding and understatement of how small moments motivate the trajectory of life.
In many ways, Utterly Monkey is reminiscent Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh . This is Laird’s first novel as Pittsburgh was Chabon’s. Each novel, while being a little too focused on the episodic nature of a single chapter, contains the promise of better things to come. Nick Laird still has to pass through the trials of the sophomore effort, but his considerable talent bodes well for him.
Throughout the course of the novel, its episodic nature intertwines within itself, drawing each character to the same moment. Each person, while consumed with finding his- or herself in different ways, is tied to the surprisingly adventurous climax of the book.
Each page encourages the next, and in the end, the novel hints at the potential that Laird has to execute a well-structured novel. While Utterly Monkey is clearly tied to elements of Laird’s raising and experience, he has illustrated an ability to fictionalize his past as well as launch beyond the scope of one person’s life.
The climax of the novel takes place on a world stage; a moment that could be devastating is defused by two simple characters trying to make amends with themselves and the world around them. Perhaps empathy and devotion to the everyday life of individuals other than ourselves drives us to be better people. Nick Laird seems to think so.