on Glover’s Mistake, a novel by Nick Laird (Penguin)

There is much to resist in Nick Laird’s irresistible second novel Glover’s Mistake -- mainly the character of David Pinner, a bald, overweight, lonely, cynical, bile-blogging, porn-surfing, 35-year old college literature instructor. But before one comes to detest him, Laird’s narrator has tucked us so devilishly into Pinner’s psyche that one spends the rest of the novel awaiting rescue. The triad of main characters also includes James Glover, a 23-year old bartender, handsome, credulous, innocent, a man-child, and Pinner’s London flatmate. Finally, Ruth Marks is a 47-year old renowned American artist, thrice-divorced, and Pinner’s former art professor.

Laird3.jpgWhen Pinner learns that Ruth has returned for an exhibit of her work, he attends the opening and renews a connection, once tenuous, that unexpectedly begins to feel intimate. Her artwork is comprised of “a sheet of black papyrus … wounded in a thousand different ways.” Pinner is carried away:

“The conversation with Ruth had left him charged. He wanted to be affected, to give himself up to something, and standing a certain distance from the black, and being a little drunk, he felt engulfed. This was Ptolemaic night, endless celestial depths of which he was the core and the centre. Everyone around him disappeared, and he imagined himself about to step into the stupor of outer space.”

But these reactions and insights turn out be rather extravagant for Pinner, even though he relates to art in a ponderous manner. When Ruth falls for the credulous Glover, Pinner launches his role as Iago to Glover’s Othello, following him through the affair only to serve a turn upon him.

Glover’s Mistake is masterfully drawn by Laird Laird.jpgin every respect: adept control of its satiric tone, perfectly-lit flashes to flesh out characters, an unmasked intent yielding shrewd pleasures, and well-paced action making quick time coincident with the fancies of desire and the rising throb of hurt.

Pinner’s psyche is the engine, and both narrator and reader are located near its thrumming. Although his green-ey’d monster is a visible beast, its source is as dark as Ruth’s artwork. “He thought how he was growing old and odd, how he was falling prey to calcified and strange routines.” We understand this and the cruel indignities Pinner faced as a student. “Too shy and self-conscious in groups, he had fastened to students who showed him kindness and then been peeled, not kindly, off. Slowly he found a few friends … who like him were awkward, and whose expectations had been comparably reduced … he still remembered anyone who’d once been nice to him.”

We also recognize the excitement of the promise of intimacy. Pinner is elevated by the nervous intensity and candor of Ruth’s persona: “She was not nice, that damning adjective, and her curiosity, when it came, was undiluted by politeness.” She would take him on, but not peel him off. Her unkindness is fascinating. “When you were chosen you become her solace, her intimate confrère in some subtle plot against the whole thick-witted world. She watched you and read you, and responded only to you. Such was the exclusive nature of her consciousness, operating in daily life through a series of mini-love affairs.”

Meanwhile, Pinner finds the perfect man-mate in Glover: “They lived in the same collective noun,” but also “little reminders of Glover’s very average mind … made his good looks so much easier to stand.” Young Glover looks for meaning in everything, while Pinner, posting his cranky entries on his blog “The Damp Review,” sees “haphazard interaction and erratic spin” everywhere.

This is a comedy gliding on tart incongruities. The “raw and breakable” Ruth (as perceived by Pinner), awash in her latest tide of late libido and at odds with her estranged daughter, falls for the aesthetically naïve, prayer-before-bedtime Glover. She says, “I’m at the stage where all I want is somebody who’s nice to me, who’s kind to me. I’ve had enough of tortured artists. I want somebody good.” The desire is all the more moving for its mismatched objects. Ruth’s gallery-owner friend Larry says, “Ruth’s one of the last genuine aesthetes. She never got the memo. She’s still into beautiful things.” Glover’s Mistake gives us the bitter pleasure of tasting our cynicism while nudging our beliefs in the beautiful and the good.

Laird2.jpgPinner’s narrowly analytical mind shapes our awareness, and his insights into art slide by almost successfully. “Art was addictive, he realized, because analogy was a technique of integration, and thus gave endless, untrue hope for reconciling everything.” But when Ruth creates a beautiful object in the shape of a heart (admired by Pinner), she is not promising the reconciliation of everything. Art integrates everything into form that illuminates opposites within a single, attractive field. But that’s it. By the time Pinner concludes that “what passes for love is imperfect knowledge,” we know he is correct but ill-equipped to see the difficult beauty therein.

Pinner is not what he is, though he succeeds in deceiving everyone (but fails to enchant his online chat partner Gayle) while their emotional fates pulse in his hands. Grievance becomes action through a dark lubricant.

Glover makes a fatal mistake with Ruth – but how one defines it determines one’s character. There is Pinner’s view, and an alternative version in process. This is Nick Laird’s broad generosity: He gives us the opportunity to experience the profane through Pinner and to desire the sacred through an embrace of ardor and error. But also, this is simply wonderful story-telling. Glover’s Mistake is a flawless entertainment.

[Published July 13, 2009, 256 pages, $25.95 hardcover]

Also by Nick Laird:
To A Fault (poetry, 2005)
Utterly Monkey (novel, 2006)
On Purpose (poetry, 2007)