“Moving is easy,” begins Nick Laird’s first novel, Utterly Monkey (2005). “But actually leaving somewhere is difficult.” It’s a lesson that the main character, Danny Williams, soon learns. When the book opens, he seems to have long escaped his background in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, where he grew up Protestant in the fictional town of Ballyglass: famous—at least in Ballyglass—for having the widest main street in all of Ireland. After studying at Cambridge, he’s worked at one of Britain’s leading legal firms for nearly five years, in the process turning himself into “a first-class Londoner.”
But then the past reappears, ringing his doorbell in the unannounced shape of his feckless, drug-dealing old schoolfriend Geordie—ordered to leave Northern Ireland by the Protestant paramilitaries who enforce law and order in his local area. (In their defense, they’d already given him an official warning—by shooting him in both calves.) Danny initially regards Geordie’s arrival as “disproportionate and cruel punishment.” A few pints of Guinness later, he is—to his surprise—almost gratified to be feeling “made in Ulster.”*
Before long, though, Danny is also remembering—or maybe realizing—how irreducibly strange his background had been:
For every Protestant business…there was the Roman Catholic equivalent, sometimes right next door. It was an instance of the parallel universe becoming visible, as if two separate towns existed and somehow inhabited the very same space.
And of course, as coexistences go, this one couldn’t be called peaceful. When Danny hears an international terrorism expert talking on television, he feels “an unkind thought rise in him like bile: now everyone else would know what it felt like—to live with the backdrop of bombings and guns.”
In the traditional first-novel way, Utterly Monkey incorporated plenty of autobiographical elements. Laird himself is from County Tyrone, where he grew up Protestant in Cookstown: famous—at least in Cookstown—for having the widest main street in all of Ireland. After studying at Cambridge, he worked in one of London’s leading legal firms. Yet what he doesn’t appear to have in common with Danny is any desire to escape his roots. These days, Laird’s rather glamorous literary life—some of it, as he admits with varying degrees of ruefulness, derived from his marriage to Zadie Smith—means he has a Greenwich Village apartment as well as a London house. Nevertheless, when asked where he considers home, Laird’s answer is Tyrone; and in New York, his Internet alarm clock wakes him with Radio Ulster.
His inevitably conflicting feelings about Northern Ireland are also a dominant theme in his work, both as a novelist and as a poet. His last poetry collection, Go Giants (2013), ended with “Progress,” which examined these feelings in no fewer than 168 dense three-line stanzas. And in his new novel, Modern Gods, he examines them some more.
Laird is uncomfortably aware that Ulster Protestants are…
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