Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird

Large head? Nasty perm? Sorry, you can't be the hero
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Over five days in July, Danny Williams (a young lawyer from Northern Ireland living and working in London) rubs shoulders with a loyalist thug, fights at his own birthday party, reunites a pair of lovers, throws away his lucrative career after an attack of ethics, finds, loses then wins the girl, thwarts a bomb plot, and finally learns the facts behind the violent death of a former teacher. Fluently written, ebulliently implausible, Nick Laird's fiction debut is an entertaining mix of thriller and comedy of misfortunes.

Over five days in July, Danny Williams (a young lawyer from Northern Ireland living and working in London) rubs shoulders with a loyalist thug, fights at his own birthday party, reunites a pair of lovers, throws away his lucrative career after an attack of ethics, finds, loses then wins the girl, thwarts a bomb plot, and finally learns the facts behind the violent death of a former teacher. Fluently written, ebulliently implausible, Nick Laird's fiction debut is an entertaining mix of thriller and comedy of misfortunes.

The bringer of Danny's woes and the catalyst for his redemption is Geordie, an old friend who turns up unexpectedly at Danny's flat having stolen money intended to fund a terrorist operation. Boyhood loyalties and dissatisfaction with his life make Danny ripe for an adventure; he offers little resistance and is quickly embroiled in Geordie's troubles. Laird, who was himself a city lawyer, is good on the soulless world of the office and his hero's disaffected place in it; trapped at night without a security pass, he notes: "There is nothing lonelier than an empty corridor.'' At the heart of the novel is the collision between cautious, sterile respectability and the unpredictable world of sensations, impulsiveness and danger.

The prose of Utterly Monkey is brisk and frictionless, hurrying readers past the story's coincidences and unlikely twists. Consequently, it lacks texture; colourless dialogue furthers the plot more than it develops characters, and Laird's milieu is only sparsely detailed. This is a matter of choice rather than inability. When the writing does attend to minutiae, the results are vivid, and Laird has a nice line in witty observations. Ian, the owner of the stolen money, for example, is described as the kind of man who wears a suit only when he is in serious trouble, "before the bench, at the altar, in the coffin'' - a deft piece of characterisation as well as a memorable aside. Always in a hurry, the narrative shifts scenes and viewpoints so effectively that it is impossible not to feel that Laird was thinking of the film rights as he wrote, and leaving the job of fleshing out to a notional cast of actors.

His characters are problematic. Neither Dickensian cartoons nor fully animated creatures, they tend towards the grotesque - the novel's title is a synonym for ugly - with disintegrating perms and greasy hair, abnormally large heads and pitted faces, or else they are all teeth or all nose, very fat, or "magnificently bald'' with ridged temples. With a disappointing predictability, Laird also aims at easy targets on the Trisha programme, or tags a group of German women tourists as "a herd of moustaches and beer guts''. By the end of Utterly Monkey, Danny is disfigured by a black eye and felt-tipped Hitler moustache, but he is still "gorgeous. [A] Big tall thing,'' while he and Ellen, his beautiful black assistant, are described as looking "great together''.

Utterly Monkey is the second half of a rare double, with Nick Laird already having published an impressive first volume of poems at the beginning of this year. It is to his credit that he has confounded the stereotype of the poet's novel, though in his determination to avoid an image-heavy, plotless, ruminative work he has produced a book which - even when touching on such fascinating issues as the Irish Protestant's ambivalence towards the English - is more intent on passing our time than making us reflect. As one of the puffs on the cover says: "You'll finish the book in a day or two.'' Quite why that is a recommendation, I don't know.

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