William Heinemann £12.99
Review: Straight White Male, By John Niven
Joyous trip through a charmed life
Saturday 31 August 2013
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.
MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word
Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Sean Abbott: Messages of support flood in for bowler following death of batsman Phil Hughes
- 2 Exodus Gods and Kings: Ridley Scott never considered casting 'Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such' in lead role
- 3 This letter from a reader explains why women can’t play football
- 4 'You should come to my house and eat cheeses with me': 4-year-old sends adorable love letter to girl at school
- 5 Scientists predict green energy revolution after incredible new graphene discoveries
I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' close to camp
This house and dental clinic 'piled up like bricks on the brink of collapsing' is why Japan wins at architecture
'I just want to get home and watch Match of the Day': The Specials frontman Terry Hall admits the agony of being in an aging rock band during gig
Exodus Gods and Kings: Ridley Scott never considered casting 'Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such' in lead role
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Ukip says babies born to immigrants in the UK should be classed as migrants – which would include Nigel Farage’s own children
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Tamir Rice: 12-year-old boy playing with fake gun dies after being shot by Ohio police
Rochester aftermath: Sacking of Emily Thornberry will make work of Labour MPs '10 times harder'