The Novels of John Niven

I’m taking a wee break from the Ten Favourite Books reviews as I bought so many new books that I haven’t had time to reread anything. As I mentioned before Christmas, John Niven was one of my favourite literary discoveries of last year. I bought Straight White Male in Three Lives & Company in New York and read it in its entirety on the flight home from New York. Niven’s writing made me laugh more than anything else I’ve read in a long time.

I decided to buy another of his books with one of my Xmas pressie book tokens and I picked up The Second Coming. When I finished it, I went back to Hodges Figgis the very next day to buy Kill Your Friends. It’s very rare these days that I devour an author’s work in one go. I used to do it when I was a teenager – find a new favourite writer and binge-read their entire output in a week – but that hasn’t happened to me in a while. Niven has published five novels and I’ve now read three, two in the space of forty-eight hours.

Niven is a Scottish writer who started his professional life in major labels in London in the 1990s at the zenith of Britpop. He left the industry in 2002 to write full-time, published a novella in 2005, and his first novel, Kill Your Friends, was published in 2008. Kill Your Friends is set in the music industry and features a thoroughly dislikable, morally reprehensible, Machiavellian, slimy, superior, vicious yet savagely funny main character called Steven Stelfox. Stelfox is an A&R man for a major label and given the excesses of the industry at the time, the book is filled to the brim with sex, drugs and very bad behaviour. (I worked for Sony BMG in London in 2005 and 2006 and recognise much of the industry detail in the book. It’s spot-on and easy to see that Niven was an insider.)

The Second Coming was the third novel Niven published. The brilliant premise of the book is that God (a joint-smoking and profane God with movie-star good looks) takes a week long holiday to go on a fishing trip. Time in heaven passes much more slowly than on earth, so when God left it was the Renaissance, which as he says was all, ‘Art up the wazoo, continents discovered like it was going out of fashion. I mean, yeah, you could already see that we were gonna have to watch the fucking Catholics, but on the whole it was looking promising.’

When God comes back it’s 2011 and the world is, not to put too fine a point on it, fucked. God decides to ‘send the kid back’ and so Jesus returns to earth as a singer and guitarist living in New York City. Jesus realises that the way to get his message out to the largest audience is to go on a reality TV show, American Pop Star, and Steven Stelfox makes another appearance in this novel as a character not unlike Simon Cowell. There are some brilliantly observed scenes in the book, especially those which take place in hell; Hitler is forever doomed to serve rabbis in the cafeteria, G.W. Gordon is sexually assaulted by large black men for all eternity, and the music playing is ‘Hip To Be Square’, ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and ‘I Believe I Can Fly’.

Straight White Male is Niven’s latest book and rather than me talking about it, have a listen to John being interviewed about it here:



The primary thing I love about Niven’s work is his capacity to make me laugh out loud. Viven Leigh once said with regards to acting that that it is much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh. I think that’s even more true for literature. We all can have empathy for characters and vicariously feel the pain of the trauma they go through, but we are much more subjective and idiosyncratic about the things that make us laugh. Niven makes me laugh. A lot. In fact I’ve read the first sixty pages of The Second Coming numerous times since I bought it, sometimes to just enjoy it and laugh, other times to pick it apart and see how his phrasing, detail or style works.

Niven is a hugely talented writer and there are far too few good comic novelists working today. I’ll be reading his other two books very soon.


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