Three's a Crowd

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009


By Nick Laird

Viking. 247 pp. $25.95

By the time you realize just what a dangerous writer Nick Laird is, it's too late to break away. This new novel from Zadie Smith's husband comes on all wit and chumminess, a buddy story about two London roommates in love with the same woman. But in the familiar surroundings of romantic comedy, Laird is busy plotting something far more unsettling. "Glover's Mistake" turns imperceptibly toward the poisonous effects of bitterness, and it'll leave you feeling wary all day, as though you'd lain down with Nick Hornby and woken up beside Muriel Spark.

The story opens at a posh art show, a multimedia exhibition of style and pretension that makes a ripe target for Laird's exquisite satire. With a few graceful lines, he sketches out a privileged world where "money grants its owners a kind of armour." The gallery's central piece is a giant sheet of black paper called "Night Sky (Ambiguous Heaven)," which sells for $950,000. But the real object of Laird's attention is a self-conscious young man from the opposite end of this social scale: David Pinner, a disaffected English teacher who feels intimidated even while seething with scorn. He's come to the gallery in hopes of reintroducing himself to Ruth Marks, a famous feminist artist "acclimatized to prosperity at an early age." She was a professor of his a dozen years ago, and the moment he sees her again, "he could imagine how she might unmoor a man's existence." With a bit of expertly tailored flattery, David manages to persuade Ruth to consider a collaborative art project, and during their subsequent meetings he fancies he might have a shot at a more romantic relationship.

As alluring as Ruth is to David, David is equally seductive to us, though in a completely different way. Whereas she simmers with class (her charcoal scarf used to belong to Audrey Hepburn), he's a cynical curmudgeon who knows he's "growing old and odd . . . falling prey to calcified and strange routines." An overweight misanthrope, unlucky in love, he pounds out his disappointments with films, television, restaurants and books on his blog, the Damp Review. He's the kind of underdog snob who appeals to our own buried resentments and unrecognized superiority with his deflating critiques of everything and everyone -- particularly himself.

His roommate, James Glover, couldn't be more different, and part of the fascination of this novel is how well Laird makes this odd couple work. At 23, Glover is arrestingly handsome, devoutly Christian and unabashedly optimistic. "While Glover wired plugs, changed fuses, replumbed the leaky washing machine, David made cups of tea and hovered." Nevertheless, "from the very start," Laird writes, "David felt they fitted; that they lived in the same collective noun. He wanted good things to happen to him. He wanted good things to happen to them both." Their friendship sparks with all the inside jokes and tolerated foibles of two guys who shouldn't get along but do.

Neil Simon played with this situation 40 years ago, and though Laird is relying on some of the same comic tensions, he's updated the plot with more psychological acuity and given the relationship a darker tint. "A friendship," Laird writes, "is a kind of romance," and what follows is a sensitive look at the way straight men who enjoy each other's company nonetheless are torn by envy and wounded affection.

At the very moment when David is about to make his move on Ruth, when "she gifted him the rare belief that he was special," she confesses an attraction to his roommate, Glover, and so begins a love triangle that moves from comedy to tragedy as subtly as twilight fades to night. We see all this from David's smoldering point of view, while he's consigned over the next six months to the role of a eunuch facilitating his roommate's relationship with a woman he imagined might be his own lover. "An aura of despair had settled over him like a pungent eau de cologne," Laird writes. With the kind of frantic bitterness that's both funny and a little scary, David realizes that he's been cast as Glover's "liege, his understudy, his ballboy and his footnote, his Sancho Panza, his Mercutio, there for service, nothing more." But despite this humiliation, David remains fixed at the center of their increasingly tense relationship, and he goes about sabotaging his best friend's happiness with a thousand tiny doses of suspicion and doubt, trying to be supportive and corrosive at the same time.

Laird's attention to the pettiness of the wounded heart will make you wince. This is an asymmetrical battle between modern sophistication and old-fashioned faith, a conflict that inspires a rising sense of dread as David's ironic quips curdle into spite. Spying his friend's well-worn Bible next to the bed, David thinks, "There was something desperate and saddening about Glover sitting in here among his cricket almanacs and National Geographics, underlining mad and ancient rules to live by." But his own life, no matter how cerebral and worldly, makes a chilly counterpoint to Glover's simple faith.

Laird's first two books were collections of poetry, and his lad-lit novels -- this is his second, after "Utterly Monkey" (2006) -- glide along with the language of a writer who can make every line work elegantly. Under his gaze, the quotidian events of domestic life seem irradiated with wit. But when the story starts racing to its wicked conclusion, Laird isn't kidding. He's posing a thoroughly modern moral challenge that can't be laughed off.

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