Straight White Male
Straight White Male by John Niven

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How do you succeed in creating a difficult central character, indeed a quite obnoxious one, and yet persuade your readers to fall in love with him? John Niven provides a textbook example in this scintillating, very funny and ultimately surprisingly moving satire, the story of a Falstaffian Irish screenwriter, mired in his own deep flaws.

Kennedy Marr is no pale genius blushing unseen. He fully admits that he’s sold out, promising himself that he’ll tell philistine producers where to go, but constantly taking the money instead. And even if he’s hard-drinking, dysfunctional and a disaster with money and personal relationships, he’s good at his job.

Now, however, having spent even more money than the large amounts he’s earned, he is forced to take a commission which involves ruining the edit of one of the best movies he’s ever seen, while teaching in a university alongside his scathingly estranged ex-wife.

So how on earth does Niven get us to care about, even love, this horrendous car-crash of a man? His techniques are instructive for all writers.

One, he gives Marr a full armoury of strengths. Marr is witty, acute, intelligent, a better observer of people than any of the others around him and his own worst critic. And he’s brave. He says and does the kind of things we dream of saying and doing, but don’t dare. And we always admire that.

Two, Niven ensures Marr is in pain. He may be difficult and self-centred, but he truly suffers. Most of all, he realises that we all die. Worse, we die whether we are good at our jobs or bad, whether we are perfect husbands and fathers, or complete failures. There is no escape.

Three, the other characters pale by comparison – from his acerbic intellectual wife to his ghastly but strangely charismatic Hollywood producer, to the jealous rival professor whose single highbrow novel sounds like hell on paper.

Four, all the characters and settings are rounded and credible, even when being sent up. Just when you think Niven has pushed his luck too far, he veers away from the cliff edge and keeps it real.

What you gradually realise (spoiler alert) is that Niven has broken the cardinal rule of character – Marr has no journey. As a reader, you are waiting for the moment when things get so bad that he’s forced to face his flaws.

The running joke of this big shaggy-dog yarn is that he never does. Every time Marr is about to fail, something good happens to him. He’s like the cartoon character who is always being killed and yet always lives. He’s incorrigible. And we start to love him for it.

Of course, if you don’t get the joke, then you may grow impatient with the story. Once you twig, however, you find you’re just enjoying the roller-coaster ride. Waiting to see just how close Marr can come to disaster and yet still come up smiling, preferably in a five-star restaurant with a glass in his hand.

It’s a risky book for that reason, but great fun. I’ve wanted to read John Niven for some time now, since I heard he’s one of the rare British writers working with satire. Now I have, I’m going to be reading – and learning – more.

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