Satirical onanism from the palest of males
STRAIGHT WHITE MALE by John Niven (384pp, William Heinemann)
Hollywood scriptwriter Kennedy Marr, once the youngest novelist to feature on a Booker shortlist, is having a quiet night in. It involves whisky, cigars and a laptop.
He ogles footage of "a lesbian duo with a brace of draught-excluder-sized dildoes", enjoys a simultaneous Skype call with a girl called Megan, who is "providing Kennedy with her own floor show", while, at the same time, another literary fan texts him pictures of herself posing suggestively with … "was that an aubergine?"
Our hero works the screens like a one-handed, drunken air traffic controller. No wonder Kennedy feels that "wanking was now at some zenith. Technology was allowing self-abuse to enjoy its Elizabethan drama moment."
Forty-four years old and wildly successful – his tally runs to six novels and one collection of short stories, five million copies sold, translated into 28 languages – Kennedy has several problems beyond his messy libido. His mother is dying in Ireland, his emotional life is a wreck, several directors are screaming for urgent rewrites and he owes the Internal Revenue Service $1.4m in back taxes. "You'll be the best-read guy in tax jail," warns his agent. And now there's a rice-grain-sized lump on his penis.
But Kennedy is a genius at ignoring inconvenient facts. It's business as usual with the work avoidance and the reckless spending, until an improbable means of salvation appears in the form of a huge grant to teach at a Midlands university. Accepting the FW Bingham award will mean living close to his former wife Millie and neglected daughter Robin. Can Kennedy turn his life around? What will the "best dick doctor in London" have to say about his little problem?
Can he live up to his early genius and reconnect with his family? Or will he return to his bad old ways?
John Niven has much more fun with Kennedy's drinking, fornicating, fighting, time-wasting antics than with his putative rehabilitation, and the reader does, too. We can't help rooting for Kennedy, a seducer but never a misogynist; a charmer who rushes at life with zest and brio. "Christ, how much he hated death. And how fiercely he ran to embrace its foes: wine, food and company."
He is aware that he is "that most awful, dread cliche: the middle-aged novelist trying to come to terms with his mortality".
Nevertheless, he's putting off writing his next great work: "In much the same way that it took three tons of rose petals to make a litre of rose oil … it took a lot of pain, a lot of experience, to make three or four hundred pages of fiction."
To begin with, Kennedy finds campus life mystifying from the sluttish garb and potty mouths of female undergraduates, to the sea change in student politics. "What did they call these boozers now old Mandela and Biko were no longer centre stage? The Julian Assange bar? Surely not, given all that rapey stuff." Meanwhile, proximity to his daughter is affecting him strangely.
A cultured soak, adulating James Joyce and quoting WB Yeats, Kennedy is not entirely out of place in an English department.
Straight White Male is a sharp and knowing satire. It owes an obvious debt to the Amises: Lucky Jim and the transatlantic wit of Money come to mind. Both those novels were ground-breaking; a 21st-century update doesn't exactly put Niven in their league, and there's nothing new or particularly fresh here.
There's a poignant distance between Niven and Kennedy, given that Kennedy also thinks about writing a novel called Straight White Male. Is that this novel? Will it sell shedloads and be in line for prizes? Probably not in this universe, but it's enjoyable all the same. – © Guardian News & Media 2013