review published on August 15, 2013. Reviewed by Noel Thorne
Nudge Reviewer Rating:
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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