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VINE VOICETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 5 September 2013
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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VINE VOICEon 22 December 2013
"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 August 2013
Imagine you're having a nice drink in a bar. Then an utterly wasted middle-aged man staggers over to you, purple nose with cracked veins, face so red it looks about to explode at a moment's notice, reeking of alcohol. He sits next to you heavily and proceeds to tell you details of his life you don't want to know in an extremely loud voice, details that comprise his sex life and his drug and alcohol intake, all of which he is very proud of. Then imagine, as you try to leave, that you can't and that you and this drunk are now tethered together for the rest of the evening, which means you have to endure his tedious drivel for a few more hours before you're free. Now imagine that drunk is this book.

John Niven's latest novel "Straight White Male" is the story of Kennedy Marr, a bestselling novelist who has become a highly paid screenwriter and script doctor living in Los Angeles. Middle-aged and single, Kennedy is enjoying his sybaritic Hollywood lifestyle, sleeping with many beautiful women, ingesting copious amounts of alcohol and drugs, and getting paid large amounts of money for minimal writing effort. And then he receives his tax bill. It seems he owes the IRS $1 million - money that he doesn't have. But when he is awarded a prestigious literary honour for his novels back in Britain, he learns that if he accepts the award he will receive £500,000 tax free with a catch: he must teach for a full school year at the university.

Straight White Male (SWM) pretends to be a satire about Hollywood and academia and fails miserably on both. First of all, these aren't exactly the hardest subjects to lampoon - Hollywood is such a bizarre and ridiculous place to start with that a satire feels pointless and that a simple non-fictional look at how studios work would yield more amusing results. And academia has been satirised by David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury so successfully that there isn't much more to make fun of - as SWM shows.

The Hollywood targets are easy and unsurprising - vain, superficial starlets, handsome leading men who're secretly gay, bloviating self-important producers and directors, every single one of them utterly pretentious. On the academic side we have snobbish literary teachers writing esoteric long-winded essays about an insignificant detail in an obscure novel. What does Niven have to say about Hollywood? A ludicrously wealthy playground full of childish personalities without an ounce of artistic integrity. About academia? Full of boring people taking the joy out of art and reducing creativity to a series of clinical exercises that don't work. In other words, he has nothing to say that hasn't been said before, better.

The real point of the book is to act as a soapbox for Niven to play wish fulfilment via Kennedy. Kennedy Marr is a middle-aged novelist who also makes a lot of money screenwriting. This apparently makes him James Bond, minus the licence to kill. Everywhere he goes women are throwing themselves at him. He can't go to the toilet without some young twentysomething following him, ready to throw off her small dress and slop around in the stalls with him. He's constantly boozing, doing drugs, but always manages to appear ravishing to women despite the damage such a lifestyle would do especially to a 40-something who does no exercise. Occasionally he tosses off a few words, gets handed wads of cash, and he saunters off to continue his manboy activities.

Far more annoying than the poor characterisation of Kennedy - or anyone - is the flimsy plot. Normally there is conflict in a story to give it some drama, and to make said conflicts more interesting, there has to be stakes. This book contains a few obstacles, some conflict, for Kennedy to overcome, which he does far too easily, but minus the stakes. Because no matter what happens in this story, everything always works out for Kennedy. Money problems that screenplay work won't solve? No matter, somehow an institution in England is willing to pay you huge sums of money to show up at their university! Headbutt a rich businessman on a flight to the UK? No matter because charges won't be pressed and the headlines make you, and the university, more famous! Curse out the star of the movie? Without lifting a finger, all will be forgiven and your status will be further enhanced for "being real"! There are supposed problems at the start of the book where Kennedy is behind on several scripts, which Niven attempts to make seem an impossible task, but when push comes to shove, Kennedy writes them all in a couple of paragraphs! There are more examples of non-conflict being resolved in an impossibly simple way, especially the ending, but I won't spoil those here. Suffice it to say, Kennedy gets what he wants very, very easily whether he tries or not. With no real problems for our protagonist, and no real story, all that's left is Niven's snide and tiresome remarks about whatever's on his mind to fill out the rest of the nearly 400 page novel - and unfortunately Niven has nothing interesting to say.

The novel makes some awkward gear changes as it shifts from Kennedy's adult holiday and laughalong at Hollywood/academia, to "real" life. It's as if Niven realised Kennedy was completely unlikable or maybe too much of a caricature even for a supposed satire and attempted to make him sympathetic by showing his family's problems. There's his dead junkie sister Gerry whom we learn about through flashbacks and Kennedy's guilt at his lavish ways compared to the poverty that his sister resided in, and his lack of intervention that led to her premature death in her early 30s. There's his dying mother whom he can't bring himself to visit while his understanding social worker brother Patrick looks after her as she wastes away, pining for her Kennedy. It's such a badly misjudged inclusion in this novel that spends so long celebrating Kennedy for his "bad-boy" behaviour that any attempt at humanity falls completely flat.

But the ending to the novel is spectacularly awful. After failing to establish a legitimate love interest in one of Kennedy's students but going for the heartbroken angle for his protagonist anyway, Niven then has Kennedy learn some bad news leading to a decision to off himself. He wanders the streets of London, reciting poetry to himself, wallowing in nostalgia. This sickeningly sentimental and self-indulgent sequence goes on for 30 pages - and it's utterly unbearable to read! Just when you're wishing that he'd just kill himself already, he launches into another rose-tinted memory that the reader has to suffer through to get to the next tedious memory. And the ending itself... well, it's a slap in the face to anyone thinking that this is a book for grown-ups.

"Straight White Male" is a satire absolutely devoid of anything to say and spends a long time saying it. It's a boring novel full of lazy writing, cliches, stereotypical characters, and a smirking attitude that believes will cause readers to overlook everything else. Like the dinosaur on the cover, here's hoping childish stories about overprivileged, self-entitled manbabies become extinct, and Niven actually makes an effort for his next novel.
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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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on 17 December 2015
Having read Kill Your Friends and Second Coming, I was expecting another acerbic black comedy, but I got story with a split personality, at once riotous but also po-faced and puritanical. Rather than go all out for a roasting of Hollywood, Niven elects to skewer middle aged men who think they are still boys. His protagonist, Kennedy Marr, is an Irish writer made good - successful enough to be a Booker nominee and screenplay millionaire, he is nonetheless, a drunken, whoring, raving lunatic. The antics work well, but they are stopped dead in their tracks by maudlin sentimentality, with the author regretting his life even though he is a paltry 44.

Kennedy left his roots in Ireland and his family in England for the vacuous LA, and his soul is paying for it. When fortune smiles on him in the form of a huge prize that involves him returning to England, all the fun is tempered by his guilt, over his neglected family, his ex-wife and daughter, and almost everything else you can imagine. The book is filled with coincidence and ends with a supposed twist I have seen many times before.

Some of the serious bits are rather good, but that is not the point. If I wanted a serious insight into morality and death, I'm not sure I'd turn to Niven and his deliberately dissolute heroes. Marr is a sinner in the old Catholic sense of the word, and while he doesn't pay in the old fashioned way, his story is as predictable as the Irish weather - soft, wet and dirty.
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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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on 9 September 2015
This is John Niven's best book and marks his real maturity as a writer. The strength of Kill Your Friends was the laugh out loud portrayal of the horrors of the music industry, building on that as a backdrop for a story about busking it and depraved ambition.

This goes further. You still root for a flawed central character - Kennedy Marr a self-centred and hedonistic writer who turns to English academia. But while Stelfox in Kill Your Friends is utterly beyond redemption and without a shred of a scruple, Marr never particularly does harm. Success comes relatively easy to him, even though he runs away from his responsibilities and is led by his urges.

But the skill of the book is to change pace and mood - to remain consistent to the character and how he thinks through his crises, but it is also incredibly tender in its final third when he tells stories of his family and of death and how Kennedy confronts the misery of his own recklessness. It's a delight at times and I genuinely couldn't put it down. John Niven is definitely one of my favourite writers at the moment.
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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 8 October 2016
I liked this quite a lot: it made me laugh out loud several times. It was difficult to avoid comparing it with "Lucky Jim" by Kingsley Amis. (I think the author was aware of this, as Kingsley gets a mention here and there.) The famous hangover section of Lucky Jim had me helpless with streaming eyes for several minutes, gasping for breath. This book raised the odd guffaw, but that's rare enough at my age. The main character is a bit of a monster (like the guy in "Money" by Martin Amis), but quite likeable/sympathetic (when he "goes off on one", I was rooting for him), and the people who surround him are vivid, and interesting. In my opinion, the narrative was clunky and over-signalled, and the end was a non-event.

Not at all bad. Glad I bought it. Will look at other things by John Niven.
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on 22 September 2013
Yes this book really is that bad that as I struggled to read it I had visions of Curtis choosing it as his next limp film. Niven's books have been consistently disappointing since his excellent Kill your Friends. I guess Niven is living proof that everyone has a book in them - but in his case clearly no more than one. Avoid - truly awful.
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