Sunday, January 22, 2006

The 'Monkey' on his back: Review of Nick Laird's Utterly Monkey.

The 'Monkey' on his back

Nick Laird swings through politics of Northern Ireland in mix of mundane, modern terror

Saturday, January 21, 2006

If you think the people in your reading group can be harsh about a book they don't like, think again. In Northern Ireland, if the locals don't like your writing, you might end up dead.

In November, Belfast playwright Gary Mitchell, his wife and 7-year-old son went into hiding after Loyalist paramilitaries gave him four hours to "get out or be killed." The warning came days after the thugs blew up Mitchell's car and wrecked his house. The gunmen were angry because Mitchell had portrayed them as fools in his plays. What irked them even more is that the theater communities in London and Dublin gave Mitchell awards for the work.

Utterly Monkey Nick Laird Harper Collins, $13.95

Nick Laird also left Northern Ireland, but under his own volition, to attend Cambridge University. There, he met the somewhat better-known writer Zadie Smith, who is now his wife. After Cambridge, Laird worked as a corporate lawyer before packing it in to start a writing career. His first novel, "Utterly Monkey," has already won some awards in England, which means he better be careful about going home again.

"Utterly Monkey" is a lad-lit thriller about Danny Williams, a disgruntled lawyer from Northern Ireland who is living in London, and what happens when his hometown friend Geordie Wilson flees the North after getting kneecapped by the Loyalists. Geordie's sins: He stole cars to go joyriding, he dealt drugs and he dated a paramilitary's sister — all too common Ulster tales of woe.

The action starts when Geordie arrives on Danny's London doorstep, still limping and carrying 50,000 pounds he stole from the Loyalists. As one might expect, the paramilitaries are looking for their cash. By strange coincidence, a terrorist — one who reads Machiavelli and Sun Tzu — named Ian knows who has it and where to go looking for it.

When Geordie arrives, he's the least of Danny's concerns. Danny has just broken up with his girlfriend and is struggling with his job at a white-shoe London law firm, where he's working on a corporate takeover of Ulster Water, a Northern Ireland utility.

Laird spends a great deal of the novel parsing the lawyer's lot in life like a man who has lived it and not loved it: In a colleague's office he observes "a wooden golf putter was propped a little forlornly in the far corner, as if it dreamt of real grass." Danny, like his colleague Rollson, who pushes the firm to buy every conceivable ergonomic accoutrement for his office, isn't a "querulous man." He's just bored. His primary diversion is Ellen, a beautiful trainee lawyer, on whom he has a crush.

"Utterly Monkey" takes place over the week leading up to July 12, when the Protestants of Northern Ireland commemorate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, in which Protestant William III defeated Catholic James II to regain control of England, Scotland and Ireland. The Loyalists, festooned in orange sashes, march through the streets and often right through Catholic neighborhoods, banging enormous drums and singing. It's as much a provocation as a celebration.

Though the novel's set-up is a fairly conventional one, in which our inadvertent hero tries to thwart terrorists while still getting the girl, "Utterly Monkey" offers a nuanced sense of the Loyalist side of the Troubles and how it still haunts those who have tried to move on. Ian, the well-read terrorist, is particularly sharp about the recent changes in the fortunes of the Ulster Protestants. (For years, the Protestants held swing seats in the British Parliament, giving them a disproportionate amount of power in London. Today, with numerous moderate and Catholic representatives from Northern Ireland sitting in Parliament, they've been marginalized.)

British novels are often a bit hard for Americans to understand. Even if you watch a lot of BBC America, the significance of a "mid-Atlantic accent" or why a character roots for the team that plays at Ibrox Stadium might be lost. Kazuo Ishiguro has speculated that writers, as a consequence of the demand to translate their works into multiple languages, unconsciously excise detail from their books. This often produces a kind of anesthetized literary voice, one that is articulate but cannot readily be placed.

Laird walks this fine line, managing to convey a lively sense of the people and politics of "that little patch of scorched earth" known as Northern Ireland without being too inscrutable. Which isn't to say he doesn't challenge his readers. Londoners and other Brits, many of whom, like Americans, only know of Northern Ireland what they see on TV, will be puzzled by the strange customs of his homeland, and why "when two Ulstermen sit down together, there's probably an even fifty-fifty chance they'll try to kill each other."

The book's denouement, which packs a nice narrative wallop, combines the best of high farce with modern terror. It's scary to realize that urban terror is something Londoners, Americans and the residents of Northern Ireland now all have in common.

Austin writer Edward Nawotka is a book critic for Bloomberg News. He lived in Northern Ireland off and on from 1995-99.

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