Here’s the scenario: I’m walking around (last time I’ll mention it, I swear) at BEA, just letting my eye wander to whatever caught its fancy. It’s the final day of the convention; a lot of the stands are already being packed up and what remains are a bunch of publicists and reps that are having a hard time disguising how ready to go home they are.
And then, there was this cover. I know they say not to judge a book this way, but seriously… take a look at that.
I didn’t have particularly high expectations for John Niven’s Straight White Male. I expected some low-brow humor, some tiring plot points and a few overly juvenile male characters that just won’t grow up!
I got much more.
We meet Kennedy Marr, the Irish novelist turned star scriptwriter, as he daydreams during a session with his court ordered psychiatrist. While we assume the doctor is asking questions and Marr is giving rote answers, his daydreams are informing us of what really makes this guy tick: that he can’t help but chase every skirt he sees. It’s ruined not one, but two marriages—as Niven puts it, “he had sprayed semen over all of that and gone looking for more.”
Yes, Kennedy Marr is a dog. He’s also got a pretty big tax problem on his hands, a penchant for the drink and very sick mother living on the other side of the pond who he rarely makes the time to call.
The solutions for our hero, if you can call a boozy philanderer that, are presented as such: either stop living the wildly lavish lifestyle you’ve adopted, or accept the award you’ve received, and go live/teach in England for a year. Reluctantly, he lands on the latter and away we go.
Throughout the story, I kept waiting for the devolvement. For Niven to go way over the top with some sexual details or one of Marr’s benders. Yet, every time it got close, Niven made sure the ship was righted.
Beyond the crisp writing and razor-sharp humor employed (with just the right amounts of sarcasm), what kept me tearing through is that Kennedy Marr’s story isn’t simply one of excess. It’s about emptiness, about a man who thinks (or at least has attempted to convince himself) he has everything, when he really has very little.
Sure, he has boatloads of money, can (and does) have sex with just about any woman he wants, and lives the glamorous life of being a movie writer—but there’s got to be more right?
Niven grapples with this through his protagonist without ever being heavy-handed. It’s a great example of the old ‘show don’t tell’ motto being put to work. As an example: we learn, in time, that Marr hasn’t even the slightest interest in working on his next novel, the distance between entries in his catalogue growing year by year. The pain is too hard, the struggle is too great to empty his soul, whatever is left of it, onto the blank page.
By the time you get to the end of the novel, you’ve come around on Marr—from what likely was a feeling of either enjoyment or contempt for his antics, to actual sympathy for what those antics have cost him and what he’s lost.
Best of all, there’s no wild, last-minute, change-your-ways epiphany.
Side note: Those are the worst, aren’t they? It’s one of the laziest writing ploys around… Hey, we’ve showed you this numskull/rascal of a character that’s been acting this way for the better part of three decades, but in the span of a few months… guess what? He’s a new man!
Good news, dear reader—this story doesn’t conclude with the beatification of Saint Kennedy.
John Niven’s Straight White Male is that wonderful combination of snarky, sharp writing, just enough sexual depravity and humor and non-lazy plot lines to keep you entertained throughout.
I may not encounter a character quite like Kennedy Marr again, but if this is any indication, I’m excited for who I will meet when I tackle Niven’s other novels.