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If misery loves company, then anyone who’s ever toiled as an associate at a large firm will be delighted by Utterly Monkey, the first novel from British lawyer-turned-author Nick Laird. Danny Williams, the hero of Laird’s tale, loathes the fictional London firm where he’s a third-year associate because of “its hierarchy, its wheels within wheels, its concurrent bitchings and slobberings, its dog-eat-dog, backstab, leapfrog.” But Danny’s in deep: His punishing hours leave little time to contemplate an alternative career, plus he’s gotten used to the big salary, free gym membership, and private pension plan. Danny’s dilemma is one that his creator knows all too well. Laird came to despise corporate law during four years as an associate at Allen & Overy in London. Novelist and character share other details: Both grew up in Northern Ireland, graduated from Cambridge University, and fell for brilliant and beautiful black women (in Laird’s case, acclaimed author Zadie Smith, best known for her novel White Teeth). But unlike Danny, Laird managed to find time during his legal career to continue his creative writing. A seven-month hiatus as a fellow at Harvard University allowed him to pull together a collection of poems. Two months after returning to Allen & Overy, he quit to write full-time. His first book of poetry, To a Fault, was published last year and garnered several literary prizes. Despite the similarities between hero and author, Utterly Monkey (the title comes from a complicated joke) isn’t an autobiography. It’s a funny and delightfully written tale that nails the misery of toiling in the wrong job. Laird’s only weakness is pacing � he steps away from his plot a bit too often for unrelated observations. The story, which unfolds over six days in July, kicks off when Geordie, a childhood friend, appears on Danny’s doorstep. Geordie is unpretentious and charming, but unlike Danny, he never left their tiny Ulster hometown, and he fell into petty crime. Still, Danny offers to help his pal, even after it emerges that Geordie is carrying a rucksack fullof cash stolen from some very bad men. While Geordie hides out in London, Danny heads to Belfast to work on a hostile takeover bid for the local water utility. Much more happens, which can’t be described without giving away the ending. But suffice it to say that the mayhem Geordie creates enables Danny to see his job in new and liberating ways. Utterly Monkey benefits from Laird’s background in poetry. His sentences are spiced with unexpected words and neat turns of phrase, and his characters are vividly drawn. He’s especially good on the particular torment and tedium of working at the bottom of the law firm food chain. Laird is a keen observer and uses this skill well to portray the daily grind of an associate. Stumbling into work at 9:43 a.m. on a Sunday, Danny is collared by the departmental managing partner, Adam Vyse, who’s eager to pass off a case abandoned by another associate (whose wife just left him because he’s spent only two waking hours with her in five weeks). “Sit down. Now how are things?” says Vyse. Danny mentally translates: “Can you do this piece of work for me . . . ? If you are seriously considering saying no, you need a reason better than I have no time or desire or consciousness or limbs.” Vyse is just one of the characters Laird draws deftly and humorously. There’s also Danny’s hypochondriacal pal, Albert Rollson, who requisitions every possible ergonomic device and monopolizes the firm’s staff physiotherapist. “Rollson wasn’t a particularly sick or delicate or querulous man,” Laird explains, “he was just very bored.” Utterly Monkey is fullof tangential observations, some of which are funny and reinforce Laird’s characterizations. But other asides stall the plot and frustrate the reader. When one of the Ulster thugs corners Geordie and retrieves the stolen loot, for instance, Laird bogs down in a windy philosophical digression about the Queen’s face on British currency. But as long as Laird sticks to the entertaining business of his story, the book shines. The final chapters speed along at a pulse-quickening clip. Despite some minor flaws, Utterly Monkey is a romping good read. Laird clearly made the right decision in abandoning the law � hopefully he won’t drop it as a subject. Catherine Aman is staff editor at Corporate Counsel. Utterly Monkey, By Nick Laird (Harper Perennnial, 344 pages.)

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