Book review: Straight White Male by John Niven

AT 44, and with a handful of critically acclaimed novels and a clutch of Hollywood blockbusters behind him, writer Kennedy Marr boozes, brawls and whores his way through LA, trailing a cortège of ex-wives, disgruntled lovers, crazed agents and estranged offspring in his wake.

Straight White Male

John Niven

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William Heinemann, £12.99

For Marr is “that awful, dread cliché, the middle-aged novelist trying to come to terms with his own mortality”.

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When writer’s block combines with a pending divorce settlement and a tax bill he has no hope of paying, Marr is forced to accept both the £500,000 WF Bingham Prize and its quid pro quo, a year teaching at the drab English university where his ex-wife now works.

Add into the mix a dying mother in Ireland, a guilt-tripping brother, a sister who never quite made it out of the starting gate and a daughter he never sees, and you have all the ingredients for a standard midlife crisis novel. Which is what Single White Male might have become had it not been so sharply written.

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Just when you thought you’d gleefully gobbled every satire on Hollywood ever produced, John Niven’s portrait of LalaLand brilliantly mines new depths.

This is a seriously funny book. Hollywood convention demands that, just as there will be blood, there will be healing, and what begins as a delicious froth quickly morphs into a conventional morality tale, albeit one with a preposterous and likeable monster at its heart. Whoever it was who said “happiness writes white” wasn’t wrong, and the enjoyable schadenfreude to be had in Marr’s downfall is never quite matched by his sticky redemption.

What the novel lacks in narrative thrills it makes up for in the writing, which is so fresh it’s still wet on the page. One gripe: Niven borrows verbatim from his published memoir of his brother’s death, which is put to use in the novel in the fictional sister’s story (or possibly vice versa). It’s an uncomfortable blurring of the boundaries between fiction and fact, a case of “write what you know” gone too far. Good fiction draws on experience rather than replicating it. That’s what makes it art.