Niven’s Great Escape
By Max Dunbar.
Straight White Male, John Niven, Picador 2013
Until now, it seemed that brutal novelist John Niven was beginning to mellow. His napalm debut about a psychotic A and R man, Kill Your Friends, was followed by a bucolic family comedy centred around golf, then a tale of liberal Christianity in which Steven Stelfox, now a Cowell-style tycoon of manufactured music, is outwitted by a hipster version of the risen Jesus. Then an MOR thriller called Cold Hands. What was going on? Had Niven lost his edge?
And then, into Straight White Male, you get this:
Peter Arthur launched himself across the aisle, springing with surprising speed and venom for one so large. But Kennedy was ready. He headbutted the guy in the face and the tycoon’s nose burst like an overripe tomato. The other passengers screaming, them rolling on the floor swinging and gouging and then the steward’s knee in his back. Needless to say the rest of the boozeless flight was not pleasant for Kennedy.
Now that’s more like it.
Kennedy is Kennedy Marr, Niven’s author protagonist. From a troubled working class Irish background he has hit the big time with a series of bestselling dark-hearted novels, and now lives in decadent splendour doctoring scripts in LA. Inevitability, when the book opens Kennedy’s life is already beginning to unravel: his devil-may-care boozy, fighting and womanising lifestyle has screwed up both his productivity and his marriage, middle age is beginning to kick in and there is a nasty IRS demand on the horizon. The writer as hellraiser hasn’t really been a thing since the Brat Pack were in full flow (many contemporary writers, as people, seem very stable and dull) and rarely attempted in fiction since: Stephen King’s clapped-out parody of Norman Mailer, Johnny Marinville in Desperation, is the example that comes to mind (and, from TV, Hank Moody from Californication.) Niven goes to town on it with a vivid portrait of contemporary excess complete with trashed bars, fretful agents and bizarre sexual anecdotes. Kennedy is an unstoppable free-speaking social machine, arrogant and impossible to deal with but carrying a reserve of warmth, humour and erudition: a man who has ‘checked his privilege and found it good.’
Eventually Kennedy gets some relief from financial crisis when he wins the half-million W F Bingham Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Modern Literature. The only problem: he has to move to Warwickshire and teach creative writing at the fictional Deeping University… coincidentally also the home of his ex wife and teenage daughter. Duly Kennedy is forced onto a flight at LAX, gets into a drunken fistfight in mid air with a Tea Party conspiracist from Virginia: and is ferried to the university in a hired limo after twelve hours of Heathrow lockdown. And Niven kicks the novel into a new gear.
The LA scenes have a sense of overfamiliarity, but it is the passages of provincial academia that had me laughing aloud as I read this in the pub on an early evening, to the bemused consternation of regulars. Niven really does capture the pretensions of litscenes outside the London loop extraordinarily well, with their little quarrels and intrigues and envy that always comes to the ball as something else. Kennedy’s appointment at Deeping causes great alarums among the various bluestockings and obscurantists tenured at the university, ideologues and failed authors who would never dream of ‘patronising the reader with anything as Empire and demotic as an interesting or arresting sentence.’ When Kennedy’s appointment is confirmed, one lecturer comments: ‘Why not elect some sordid little thriller writer… Why not Stephen bloody King?’ And there is a well-realised character Niven makes far too little use of, the department head Dr Dennis Drummond, who hates Kennedy ostensibly because he is a commercial writer of establishment literary fiction: in actuality because Kennedy’s career as a writer long outstripped Drummond’s own. The creative writing mill has long been an untapped comic mine for satire – the only reason most novelists don’t write about it is because they are dependent on the creative writing industry for secondary income. In career terms Niven is close to the dream of novelist as superstar – he doesn’t need tenure or a teaching job and this novel confirms his escape. All we need is a Lee Rourke cameo, and the satire would be complete.
From the outset Straight White Male seems like the old story of the hellraiser who wakes up to family and responsibility, but the book confounded me on that. After the university scenes have been established, Niven changes pace again, and his novel slips into a fractured meditation on family and monogamy. This isn’t as predictable as it sounds. Kennedy is forced to confront his shattered family and terrible past but there isn’t some great personal change as a result: instead, underneath the layers of bling and bosh, through the smeared glass, a sense of elegy and complication that stays with you long after the final page.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 12th, 2013.