John Niven's debut, 2008's Kill Your Friends, eviscerated the music business, and the hedonistic depths plumbed by its protagonist, the A&R man Steven Stelfox, enough to cause a mortified blush in even the brassiest reader.
While maintaining the key essence of that debut – a groove of exhilarating outrageousness that never lets up – Niven's latest is a more mature work. In place of Stelfox, a narcissist with a stunning capacity for narcotics, we have the best-selling author Kennedy Marr, a borderline alcoholic sex-addict whose inclination towards intoxicants is matched by a searingly critical self-knowledge.
Marr is well aware why he has given up writing novels – it's too hard; being a script doctor on Hollywood schlockbusters, on the other hand, takes few brain cells but brings in Croesus levels of money. He knows he spends too much on fancy dinners, flash cars, but he attributes it to an epicurean streak that is endemic to human nature: "Oh reason not the need…".
Marr at first resembles Stelfox in his unflinching, if riotously funny, awfulness – not least a sublime scene in which he indulges in four different types of pornography, with deadly consequences for his phone, his computer and his dignity. Yet this soon changes, thanks to Niven's stealthy construction of character.
Ever quoting Yeats and Joyce, Marr is an erudite sot, and his intelligence makes him charming; as does his generosity of spirit. Then there's his moral backbone – despite his apparent lack of responsibility, he has a clear social conscience.
And, best of all, there are his incandescently acerbic put-downs of those whose belief systems counter his own – from tax-dodging businessmen to barely pubescent actors ("'While you were still trying to write your feckin name in shite from your nappy on the bathroom floor I was walking out of university with a double first ...'").
Niven's plotting is deft and precise, as we follow Marr from the vacuity of LA back home, where he must confront not only the life he could have had with an ex-wife who saw him through the lean years, but also his mortality, as he visits his ailing mother in hospital. And so we understand that he is a psychopath by convenience – it's easier to be incapacitated than it is to deal with reality.
Straight White Male is caustic and poignant, yet consistently, addictively funny – just note Marr's desperation in his attempts to come up with a pitch for a TV show. What's the idea, he's asked. "'Oh fuck knows. Who cares? A couple of skanks share an apartment. No wait. One's a prude and the other's a skank. Skank talks prude into becoming a skank.' 'Wow,' [his agent] Braden said flatly. 'Got a title?' 'Skanks?' Kennedy said hopefully. 'Jesus…'"
Clever and joyous, this deserves to do even better than Niven's bestselling debut.