by Nick Laird
Published by Harper Perennial
344 pages, 2006
Close... but no Cigar
Reviewed by Mary Ward Menke
Utterly Monkey is the debut novel of Nick Laird, best known by readers in the UK as a poet (his critically acclaimed collection To a Fault was published there in 2005) and husband of award-winning British author Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty). Although this first effort is not perfect by literary definition, it is an admirable work and demonstrates that Laird is more than a one-genre writer. By correcting a few problems in subsequent works, he will become a force to be reckoned with.
Utterly Monkey is the story of two childhood friends from Northern Ireland whose lives follow different paths only to converge years later. A humorous, idiosyncratic look at corporate life and male friendships, it's the male equivalent of chick-lit.
Danny Williams is a well-paid, disenchanted, going-through-the-motions lawyer in London. Geordie Wilson is an unemployed laborer, a small-time crook who has run afoul of the Ulster Unionists when he makes off with what may or may not be drug money. When Geordie arrives on Danny's doorstep looking for a place to stay, Danny is less than enthusiastic. The two had grown up together and their friendship was cemented over a traumatic incident Danny would just as soon forget.
The story takes place over a six day period. Geordie is on the run from Budgie, the bad-guy brother of his girlfriend Janice, after Janice steals a sizeable amount of money from Budgie and gives it to Geordie. On the boat from Ireland to England, Geordie becomes acquainted with Ian McAleece, who seems to be a nice guy on the surface, but just happens to be in cahoots with Budgie. When Ian subsequently tracks down Geordie at Danny's demanding the money, they all become involved in a bank bombing plot. Herein lies the problem: the complex plot line is misleading. The resolutions are ludicrous and the reader is asked to suspend disbelief much too frequently (Geordie gives the money back and the bomb doesn't explode).
If the plot is weak and improbable, the characters are not. Utterly Monkey is a character study and, as such, Laird does a fine job of creating distinct and believable personalities. Danny at first appears to be commitment-phobic; he's going through a breakup with a girl who loves him more than he loves her. One gets the feeling that he doesn't want her because he already has her. He then sets his sights on office trainee Ellen Powell, who at first appears unattainable. The more she rejects Danny, the harder he tries. He obviously enjoys the challenge. When he finally gets her and she lets her guard down, he rejects her, too. Of course, it all works out neatly in the end, and in the meantime we learn more about what makes Danny tick.
Geordie, on the other hand, takes what he can get where he can get it. At least, that's how his relationship with Janice starts out: all about sex. Janice is the tramp with the heart of gold who inadvertently gets Geordie into big trouble and then does everything in her power to make it right. Along the way, Geordie realizes his feelings for Janice go beyond sex.
Laird's ability to create memorable characters, including the seemingly inconsequential ones, is commendable. Albert Rollson is an example. A bored, hypochondriacal associate of Danny's, Albert makes his job worth his while by taking advantage of his company at every opportunity:
He had the desk raised on four wooden blocks for some odd reason, odd given that he was five foot five, and therefore also had a specially high chair .... The chair raised and lowered itself by levers and Rollson would, as a distraction, frequently drop himself a foot or so in the middle of an argument if he felt like he was losing. The chair also had a special lumbar support fitted, and his keyboard was the new-fangled angled kind allowing maximal access for the wrists to rest on their own special pad .... His mouse pad contained a further wrist rest, one which Rollson, in his over-enthusiasm at receiving another toy from the company's full-time physiotherapist, had upsettingly described as feeling like a thirteen-year-old girl's breast ....
The fact that the whole is less than the sum of its parts may be off-putting to some readers. For the rest of us, Utterly Monkey is an entertaining, if not totally satisfying read with interesting characters, excellent writing and fast pace. | March 2006
Mary Ward Menke is a contributing editor to January Magazine and the owner of WordAbilities, LLC, providing writing and editing services to businesses and individuals. Her work has been published in The Toastmaster, Dog Fancy and Science of Mind magazines, in the Suburban Journals (a weekly St. Louis community newspaper) and on STLtoday.com.