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.
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
- 2 James Blunt was special guest on the highest-rating Top Gear episode ever
- 3 People all over the world are getting semicolon tattoos to draw attention to mental health
- 4 Van driver who comforted Clark Carlisle and called 999 after suicide attempt dies age 24
- 5 Baby rescued 1km out to sea after parents forgot about her
Bad luck, One Direction: Paul McCartney doubts success of The Beatles will ever be matched again
This is surely the best way to watch Jaws
The Crystal Maze: Richard O’Brien confirmed to return as more details revealed about show's rebooted format
James Blunt was special guest on the highest-rating Top Gear episode ever
Guillaume Tell's gang-rape scene caused uproar at the Royal Opera House – but the portrayal of extreme sex and violence on stage is nothing new
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture