Caught by the River

"The Amateurs" by John Niven

20th May 2009

David Quantick reviews John Niven‘s new novel The Amateurs. Signed copies are available in the CBTR shop.

John Niven’s first published novel was Kill Your Friends, a callously brutal gakanory through the music industry, Martin Amis’ Money rebooted by Irvine Welsh and some piranhas. It was deeply accurate, deeply unpleasant and clearly the work of a man who’d boiled his own soul in hatred and thrown the resulting soul acid in humanity’s face.

So it’s something of a surprise, then, that Niven’s second novel is a light-hearted tale about golf set in a small Scottish town, whose characters are both sympathetic and likeable. At first glance this seems about as linear as Dostoevsky moving on from Crime And Punishment to having a bash at Lark Rise To Candleford, but there is more to both Niven, and The Amateurs, than this. For a start, The Amateurs does have a fairly wide streak of ultraviolence in it, thanks to some nasty Scottish gangsters. And while the plot concerns central nerk Gary’s new found golf skills after an accident on the greens, one side affect of the accident is uncontrollable bursts of Tourette’s Syndrome (and there’s also, oddly, a hint of Tom Sharpe’s vicious farces in here, suggesting that there is a middle ground between Trainspotting and Wilt after all).


The Amateurs is enormously enjoyable, with all the baggage those two jolly-faced words imply. It’s moving at times, it’s extremely funny, it’s both cynical and warm (just like people, eh?), and it can go off down slightly shakey prose alleys (unlike the relentless focus of Kill Your Friends, The Amateurs is a multi-viewpoint novel, and Niven sometimes hops from character to character like a slightly bored man at a party). The latter is a minor criticism, and frankly failed to hinder me from reading this book in one day. Niven’s gallery of characters is extensive, his ability to portray everyone from psychopaths to Gary’s mum impressive (the only character I disliked was Steve, who might as well have been called Gary’s Generic Mate) and his skill with a far more ambitious plot than Kill Your Friends enviable (well, I envy it, I can’t write plots to save a kitten’s life). A very fine book indeed.