Without wanting to come over all Thought For The Day, I was on a train not too long ago, and I was reading John Niven’s novel Kill Your Friends. Just before Newcastle, the woman sitting opposite me leaned over and said that she worked in the music business, where the novel is set, and that having read the novel, and vaguely knowing Niven or at least his reputation, she thought that, if anything, it was too tame.
Considering I described the novel as “Irvine Welsh writing a cross between High Fidelity and American Psycho” I found that hard to believe, but not too hard. The actions of the lead character of Steven Stelfox certainly rang true and I suspect they could only be written by someone who was there, or near, such occurrences at the time. What ever the truth of what went on on the page, it was clear that this was a writer of great talent, one who could entertain like few others are able.
His latest novel, Straight White Male, covers similar territory to Kill Your Friends in terms of excessive behaviour, but this time is set in the overlapping worlds of publishing, Hollywood, and academia. The person at the centre of this strange Venn diagram is Kennedy Marr, a prize winning novelist from a young age, who now writes Hollywood film scripts, and who is offered a one year prestigious teaching post at an English University for £500,000, a sum he needs to pay of the monumental tax bill which has just come his way.
Like Steven Stelfox, Kennedy Marr is a man of excess, and then some. Now in his middle age, he is still trying, and on the whole succeeding, to be the heavy drinking, sexual swordsman that he has been for the last 20-odd years, a lifestyle leading to failed marriages, failing health, yet a very healthy alcohol addiction, one which he maintains in heroic style. The scene where it is detailed how Kennedy drinks over a normal lunch could have been a Scorsese one-take shot, as he moves seamlessly from aperitifs as he arrives, to the wine already waiting at the table, which changes depending on which course he is on, and ending with only the finest cognacs or whiskys. It would make a Glaswegian journalist from the 1980s proud. And this is LA, a place where they are ready to call AA if you consider ordering a second beer. I have to admit there was some admiration to the dedication needed to living the life Kennedy does.
It would be too easy to say that Kennedy no longer cares about life, he actually cares about it a great deal, determined to enjoy it as his desires see fit. He also cares about his daughter Robin, her mother, his ex-wife Millie, and his own dying mother and put upon brother back in Ireland, but he can’t deal with the seriousness of those lives so blots them out or avoids them with increasingly heavy nights out and increasingly lame excuses. If you believe in Aristotle’s ‘Doctrine of the Mean’, you would say that Kennedy has an excess of the desire for pleasure and a deficiency in the desire to look after others, but that is too simple. He has lived this life of quick fix highs and easy fulfilment for so long that the more long term, yet surely more rewarding, highs of doing the right thing by those he loves seem too far away to be real. Kennedy is terrified but he hasn’t quite yet worked out what from, even when the reader can give it a fair shot.
No one that I have read writes “wasted” as well as John Niven does. The two novels I can think of which come close are A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise and Ron Butlin’s The Sound Of My Voice, but they tend not to show the fantastic highs as well as the terrible lows in evidence here, or at least don’t give them their due, not quite fully acknowledging that there couldn’t be the one without the other. There are scenes later in the novel where Kennedy is “walking” the streets of Soho which I can promise you that if you have never been absolutely hammered, this is exactly what it’s like; for a brief period it’s wonderful, then you tip over the edge and you’re not in Kansas anymore. But this is not a morality tale. Kennedy has regrets, and more than a few, but also has loved his life, even if everyone sees it as shallow, excessive and selfish. It is shallow, excessive and selfish, but that’s a large part of Kennedy’s character, just as it is a large part of many people’s character.
Straight White Male is Niven’s best book to date as it has a humanity which is often surprising and very moving as Kennedy tries to make ammends of some sort. Unlike Steven Stelfox, Kennedy is aware that his actions have caused others pain and cares about this even as he acts in a similar manner once more, the sign of a true addict. Whereas Jesus (yes, that one), in Niven’s equally entertaining The Second Coming knows he is ultimately immortal, Kennedy Marr just behaves as if he is while being far too bright to not realise the truth of the matter. He has committed the crimes, and is just waiting for his punishment.
Funny, scabrous, filthy and monstrously readable, Straight White Male proves Niven is writing this sort of novel better than anyone else at the moment. I’m not sure how he manages to make his lead characters likable even as they continue to destroy others, and their own, lives, but it seems effortless, and with Kennedy Marr he has someone who can stand alongside Trainspotting’s Mark Renton, A Chancer’s Tammas or Death Of A Ladies Man’s Charlie Bain as roguish yet likable, if never quite lovable. Maybe we relate to them because we recognise these human frailties all too well. Or maybe it’s because, if you’re like me, you suspect that had you found fame and fortune in your early-20s you would have lead a life not dissimilar to that of Kennedy Marr. There’s certainly more I recognise in his character than I would be prepared to fully admit, at least not until after a couple of drinks.
Here’s John Niven himself talking to Book Zone TV about Straight White Male: