At the Happy Ending Reading Series, which takes place at Joe’s Pub these days, authors are encouraged to “take public risks.” In practice, this generally translates to: humiliate yourself. And so it comes to pass on a lovely July evening that Nick Laird, the Northern Irish writer and author of the just-released novel Glover’s Mistake, is wrestling his endearingly wide-eyed pug, Maud, into submission in full view of an awwwwing crowd.
“The dog is fantastically disobedient, kind of passive-aggressive, and she freaks out at loud noises, so—ehh—this could all go a bit Siegfried & Roy,” Laird warns, in defiance of Maud’s tiny stature and inability to even really breathe that well, let alone maul. But the crowd is already won over. “Pug,” Laird begins—and this is the public risk, serenading his dog in three sonnets in front of over 100 people—”bruiser, bat face, baby bear, bounce in your moon suit of apricot fur . . .” The poem, Laird later explains, is from On Purpose, his second book of poetry, perhaps the only volume in W.W. Norton’s long and storied history to include an acknowledgment dedicated to The Pug Dog Club Weekly Bulletin.
A few hours before Laird was scheduled to do his thing with the dog, we’d met up at a bar nearby. His original intention, he explained over pints, had been to read from the evaluations he’d received from the Columbia students he’d just finished teaching. But the day had gone south, and so, Plan B—Maud. Judging from the reaction at Joe’s Pub, the evaluations are not particularly missed. Having tamed the audience, Laird finally gets to do what he’d come to Happy Ending to do, which is read from his new novel, a thing he does quickly, with economy, in a lucid but substantial Irish accent. As he finishes and leaves the stage, it occurs that neither he nor Amanda Stern, Happy Ending doyenne and MC, has actually mentioned the title of the novel. Someone yells out, “What’s the name of the book?” And, in a voice too English and distinct to belong to anyone else in the room, his wife, Zadie Smith, loudly responds, “Glover’s Mistake!”
Right, Glover’s Mistake. The book is the 35-year-old Laird’s second novel, after Utterly Monkey (2005), an adept take on male friendship and male idiocy masquerading as a crime farce. As with most first novels, Utterly Monkey had more than a bit of Laird’s own autobiography in it. Like the book’s main protagonist, Danny Williams, Laird grew up in a small, Northern Ireland town. Like Williams, Laird would eventually leave to attend first Cambridge and then law school before becoming a lawyer, a profession that Laird pursued for six years before quitting to focus on writing full-time. Shortly afterward, Utterly Monkey and Laird’s first book of poetry, To a Fault, were published within three months of each other; On Purpose, another book of poems, followed two years later. “Poetry is special, yeah?” Laird says, when I ask him how he differentiates between the two literary genres. “It feels so archaic and kind of ludicrous—like origami.”
Utterly Monkey, when it came out, was compared to a Guy Ritchie flick in The New York Times and frequently dismissed as “lad lit” in England, due to the book’s preponderance of slapstick villains and scenes set in bars. Glover’s Mistake, a more psychological and lyrical affair, is a different kind of novel, a sort of retelling of Othello from the perspective of Iago, as played by David Pinner, Laird’s preternaturally bitter and rotund 33-year-old protagonist.
David, a schoolteacher, passes his days updating The Damp Review, his cranky blog about art, cinema, and even, occasionally, “The Death of Love in Modern Culture.” Other activities include looking at porn, smoking weed, and “reading Berryman’s Dream Songs“—David is, in other words, a model online citizen, if not one in real life. His Othello and Desdemona arrive in the form of James Glover, the 23-year-old bartender with whom David lives, and an American, Ruth, David’s 45-year-old former art teacher from Goldsmiths College. When she returns to London to take part in an exhibition of British and American female artists, David quickly re-insinuates himself into her life. He is, it emerges, probably a little in love with both of them, though it’s Ruth he’ll set his sights on, and Ruth who will bitterly disappoint him when she starts up a fling with Glover.
“The theme tonight is depression and jealousy,” says Laird, as we finish our pints and prepare to head over to Joe’s Pub. “And my book’s kind of all about that.”
Interviewing Nick Laird turns somehow to drinking with Nick Laird, as we go from the pub to Joe’s Pub to the after-party, in the basement of Marion’s. There, we’re joined by his wife, who is slim and pretty and expecting—the couple will have their first child in the fall. They’ll be back in London then, too, leaving behind their Chelsea apartment and teaching jobs at Columbia (Smith will return next year, to join the faculty of NYU). But at the moment, Laird tells me wearily, their house on the other side of the ocean is missing one of four sides, the back wall having fallen victim to construction on a new kitchen extension. There’s no Internet there, either—sometime toward the end of Laird’s work on Glover’s Mistake, he took a pair of nail scissors to the wire. It’s no accident that Laird made the passive-aggressive, distracted, and almost pathologically cruel David Pinner a blogger. “It’s hard to look at anything that’s even vaguely complicated” online, Laird says. “I was trying to read Dr. Johnson last week, and his syntax is so fucking complicated. After you’ve spent two hours on Gawker, it’s just not happening.”
And so instead, at Marion’s, we talk about comprehensible things: The Wire and Jimmy McNulty’s confusingly posh English accent, the wholesale robbery of the comic Bill Hicks’s act by Denis Leary, the unfortunate tendency of New York City houseguests to overstay their welcome, and potential names for his new daughter, who can still be called anything at all except, probably, Maud.