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4.3 out of 5 stars
Straight White Male
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 2 November 2013
Rather than the protagonist being a completely unbearable bastard who remains that way Straight White Male gives us an completely unbearable bastard who appears to have a softer side. For all the horrible sides of Kennedy Marr he has some sparks of brilliance - his scholarly quotes, his belief in the delightfulness of literature and his too little, too late love for his little sister are all characteristics which give him a more three-dimensional nature than some of Niven's other characters.

I particularly like Kennedy's relationship with his daughter. Unlike many novels who make young teenagers out to be completely opposing rude and obnoxious when it comes to wayward parents Niven makes Kennedy's daughter believable. He may only turn up to see her once a year and she may be an older teen BUT she is still childishly happy to see him and proud of his less-than-parent-like tabloid escapades.

So yes, Straight White Male didn't delight me like the first time I picked up a Niven novel but I still really enjoyed it. It was hilarious in points, has recognisable characters who exist in everyone's life and has no problem with saying things exactly as they are. It's also very sweary which only ever adds to my enjoyment. If you haven't read Niven before but want to I think Straight White Male could be a good place to start.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 10 July 2014
This is a brilliant book. Wildly entertaining, it features a central protagonist who is bad, and is all too aware of it. A successful novelist, he has sold his soul to Hollywood and made a ton of money. In the process he has left a trail of destruction: broken relationships, drunken violence, and most of all, a tortured soul. I would have liked it to have been a bit longer I was enjoying it so much, especially the clash between his Hollywood lifestyle and some random rural British university and its scene.

The part where he spurns the dingy office given to him by a resentful head of department to claim the biggest room in the building as his office - complete with bar and 50-inch TV, is especially delicious. But it is a story ultimately of redemption, and many men especially will recognise his journey - and enjoy it all the more. If you have enjoyed Niven's other work you will love this - if you haven't read any yet, this is as good an introduction as you will get. As Neil Tennant once said of perfect pop songs, this book will make you intensely happy and sad, all at the same time.
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"What a piece of work is a man" as the Bard once put it and, in his latest blackly comic novel this seems to be the theme John Niven has picked up and ran with.
The man in question is one Kennedy Marr, a fabulously successful l'enfant terrible, Booker Prize winning, Irish novelist turned playboy Hollywood screenwriter. Kennedy is also a heavy drinking, drug taking, womanizing hellraiser with little regard for the damage he does to those who care about him. Or even those who don't.

The plot, to briefly summarize, is that due to this extravagant lifestyle, Kennedy owes $1.5m to the US taxman and, even if he clears his overdue backlog of work the best he can do is break even.
At the same time, in England, he becomes the winner of the prestigious F.W. Bingham literature award which will award him £500,000 tax free. The catch being he will have to return to England and work as a lecturer at a University for a term.
Kennedy enjoys, or thinks he enjoys, his carefree life. England holds too many memories and home truths, his ex-wife, his teenage daughter, his hard working brother and, most of all, his dying mother.
Kennedy's initial reluctance is soon quashed by a few brutal financial facts from his accountant and agent and soon he's on a plane to Blighty (naturally managing to get into an in flight punch up with an obnoxious American on the way).
Kennedy is a compelling central character as most readers, mostly the male ones, will quietly enjoy vicariously living such an irresponsible, seemingly glamorous and selfish existence. One of my favourite passages involved him contemplating a relationship counsellor's question of what he wants, "All, Kennedy wanted, -all he ever wanted- was to do exactly as he pleased all the time in an utterly consequence-free environment".
Niven has a lot of fun with this aspect of the book with Kennedy bouncing from one outrage to the next and seemingly incapable of walking down the street without it resulting in some sordid casual sex or a drunken brawl.
This is, I felt the nub of the novel, it's very much a book about being male. Which isn't to say women won't enjoy it too but I think there are extra layers that men will relate too, even if most of us would be loathe to admit it.
Among Niven's great gifts, and something that all great fiction must contain to be truly great, is honesty. Kennedy may be an unrepentant type but he still finds time to reflect upon some of his actions and consider the damage being wrought. It's these moments where Niven's prose really shines through, these small moments of sober or post-orgasm reflection where the shame threatens to gnaw at Kennedy's tarnished soul. Niven takes us deep into the male psyche here, often revealing the sort of heart of darkness that a lot of writers might draw back from. But it all rings true.

A perfect example of this is the opening four way, continent spanning, internet session of "self-pleasuring" involving Kennedy, his iPhone, his iMac, three different women and a tumbler of Whiskey. It doesn't end particularly well but is both tragic and hilariously funny (or disgusting" filth as another reviewer stated). from the brilliantly orchestrated crudeness of the act, Niven then segues into Kennedy's "post-funtime" bleak analysis of his actions and questioning why he does such things when he could have had the true love or several partners over the years. Instead he pleased himself and "broke love".

This "breaking of love" is a recurring theme in the novel, particularly in the latter half when he returns to England and reunites with his ex wife and estranged teenage daughter. For every paragraph of crude, foul mouthed debauchery we get an even balance of tenderness. Some of the latter writing is particularly moving and beautifully observed.

This is primarily why the book works so well. We shouldn't really like Kennedy but we do. He might act monstrously on occasion but he's no monster; he's just been lost in the wilderness of LaLa Land for too long.

There are several other plot strands along the way but you can discover these for yourself.

Is this a novel of redemption? Well, that would be telling. Will the ending please everyone? Almost certainly not, although I liked it. Is it as funny as "Kill Your Friends"? Not really, but you will laugh and it's a slightly more nuanced work than that fierce breakthrough novel.

Personally, I couldn't put it down. it's a rare addictive read and I eagerly await his next novel (his recent venture into thriller territory, "Cold Hands" was excellent too. Some people are just show-offs, eh?).

Funny, crude, eloquent, abrasive, tender and all the other contradictions that make "the piece of work that is a man". It also makes for an excellent novel.
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on 17 November 2013
This is a book whose beauty lies in creating a character who is totally, almost unbelievably terrible as a human (really, an absolute platinum-lined shitball) and yet somehow sympathetic. Kennedy Marr is rude, self-absorbed, unreliable and from the opening chapter clearly on a fast track to self-destruction, but you know what? I really liked him. And that's not because I am also a shitball, honestly, it's because Niven's writing is clever and funny and honest. Mostly though it is funny - laugh out loud on the bus funny.
Fan's of the US TV show Californication will know the territory here well: successful, charming but deeply flawed writer makes it big in Hollywood and has trouble keep himself on the straight and narrow. In fact he seems to have abandoned any attempt to stay on the highway at all and has gone off road in a massive diesel powered four by four, ploughing up the grass verge and driving over bunny rabbits as he goes. There are drugs, sex, fights, preposterous behaviour in upscale environments (I think this may have been the part the just made Marr so likeable despite his many, many faults)and bad decision after bad decision. Hollywood and the writing trade come in for some sharply observed abuse (Niven clearly more than a little familiar with this world) and the story builds pace nicely to it's denouement. There are touches of genuine pathos as Marr begins to recognise that his trail of destruction has created some real casualties: his dying mother, his brother and most notably his teenage daughter, and the end, when it comes has a nice little twist.
I am delighted to have come across Niven and have already torn through Kill Your Friends. Now the central character in that one makes Kennedy Marr seem like a goddam monk!
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The hero, if that is the right word, of John Niven's latest novel is Kennedy Marr, a thoroughly unlikeable Irishman, who having written a few best-selling novels has turned to the far more lucrative trade of writing film scripts. He lives in LA where he enjoys the high life to a ludicrous extent, having sex with numerous beautiful women, driving expensive cars, employing numerous retainers for his vast house, enjoying hugely expensive dinners and consuming enormous amounts of the finest alcohol and drugs. We are shown his life as one of the top Hollywood movie people, and these opening chapters are supposed to be a satire on the absurd lives they lead, but it is not terribly successful because the objects of the satire are all too easily dismissed as shallow, pretentious, and ultimately meaningless.

Everything changes when, despite his huge income, it turns out that he owes the tax authorities over $1M. Rescue comes in the form of an award with a literary prize of £500,000 tax free, but there is a serious downside: he must spend a year teaching at an obscure English university. A further complication is that his former wife is a lecturer in the same department. However, conveniently, the film he is working on will be shooting scenes at Pinewood, so continuity of the Hollywood satire is assured. This is all a little too contrived, but at least gives the author the chance to turn his attention to academic life in a small English university. Unfortunately, these chapters describe a life that ceased many years ago, and was far more successfully satirised by the likes of Lodge and Bradbury, and before them Kingsley Amis and John Wain. Niven's attempt is a pale imitation.

There is some attempt towards the end to make Marr a more likeable character by introducing his family, still living in Ireland, but the attempt fails, because he continues his debauched life. Finally, after some dramatic personal events, he tries to kill himself, but is save by the strength of the bootlaces in his superior hand-made English shoes (don't ask, it is so absurd). The life-changing decision he makes at the end (no prizes for guessing what it is) is too sentimental for words.

There are some good features in this novel. There are certainly some very funny scenes, although nothing that we have not read before. But overall, the characterisations and plot are unconvincing.
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on 12 September 2013
Kennedy Marr takes the lead in this novel, a charming Irishman with more money than sense living the playboy lifestyle. Yet, as you get to know Kennedy you see nicer elements of his character like giving money to beggars and treating his maids and gardeners well. You realise you probably shouldn't like this guy but something about him makes you want to learn more. Maybe it's his sharp tongue, his intelligent wit or just waiting to see what trouble he gets into next there is a character here that demands attention.

Part 2 of the book sees Kennedy moving to England and being thrust back into a life that involves his (one of his) ex wives and daughter which of course leads to more hilarity but the introduction of his brother, mother and other family members provide you with a more sensitive edge to the book and Kennedy's make up.

This book didn't throw up any major surprises or plot twists but I found myself laughing and just about crying in equal portions. I don't know the author but from his social media use I get the impression that Kennedy Marr is an outlet for the kind of guy John Niven could be. An extrememly entertaining one who learns lessons the hard way.
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on 30 September 2013
There is only one thing wrong with this book and that is that you have to finish it. Of course it's gross, appalling and not for the squeamish. But it is gut-wrenchingly funny. There are also passages of extermely good writing in it, for instance on the delusions of middle-aged males and their 'sins against love' in the first section. If you want to escape your life for a few days, Kennedy Marr is a good, if entirely wretched, companion. Go and buy and support a very worthwhile charity.

PS

Ok - I've just finished the book and I've completely changed my view on it. Make no mistake, people, this is one of the great novels of our time. This is a work of very serious intent, which is no less than to knock the Great White Male generation of Bellow, Roth, etc off their pedestal.It is high time someone skewered these persistent - to paraphrase Peter Cook - soloists of the priapic oboe. And to make Kennedy an Irish mammy's boy to boot - brilliant. Kennedy Marr - and possibly John Niven - sees himself in the tradition of Joyce etc. Well, he is.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 27 August 2014
At first I thought this was just a rewrite of "Kill your Friends", set in the world of writers and Hollywood, instead of the music industry. But unlike Steven Stelfox, who doesn't care about anything except himself and his money (as you find out in the Second Coming), Kennedy Marr is haunted by his past and ultimately looking for a way out. Recommended.
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on 11 September 2013
I have read all Niven's books to date and have enjoyed them immensely. He has an original and humorous mind and when Straight White Male came out I pre-ordered it and sat down to read it on my kindle. After a few pages I thought that I had picked up Kill Your Friends by mistake. The same format of a dissipated drink, drug and sex fuelled, utterly vulgar, immoral and uncaring, lonely single male who seems to have achieved his status by accident. I had to put it down after half way, thoroughly disillusioned with the fact that I had spent a few quid on pure repetition.

Niven is a talented original writer - see The Amateurs and The Second Coming - but with SWM seems to be following in the footsteps of Kennedy Marr by thinking he can get away with simply cranking a handle and hits and success will follow.

If it is a first time read then it is a brilliant satirical well written book but he can do better by using his talents to come up with something a bit different.

Dave Allan
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 6 September 2013
I really liked this book and flew through it, as I have done with all the others. It was funny and entertaining as always. However, I felt that it lacked a little something present in Kill Your Friends, Music from Big Pink etc. I'm sure there are people who will disagree but this is my review after all. If you are a fan of Niven, it is a must read though.
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