Some people read for the purposes of escapism. The Fuck-It List by John Niven will not provide you with that, as his scathing brand of satire is all too realistic. It’s not a casual read that’ll take you out of the discomfort of our moment in history. The year is 2026, the troubles that burden America have only gotten worse, and Frank Brill has terminal cancer. The diagnosis doesn’t come as a surprise, and allows Frank to give himself permission to go on a murder spree. Does this sound similar to Breaking Bad without the crystal meth? Sure. But the unique perspective that Niven offers maintains my investment in the protagonist.
My favorite thing about Niven is his ability to stir empathy by creating flawed characters that are all too relatable. Frank Brill is at the end of his life and decides to carry through as much of a hit list as he can manage. It sounds like a violent romp for the sake of it and I’d be a liar to claim it’s not, but the motives, sense of loss, and weight of the past that Frank reflects upon creates a believable portrait who gains my support. That probably says more about me than anything else.
I’ll admit, this book isn’t for everyone, but if you want an all too real satirical reflection of America in the filthiest mirror one could find, The Fuck-It List delivers. It kept me turning pages. The stakes get higher with each name Frank Brill stalks down. I enjoyed this immensely, as I do anytime Niven puts out a novel.
Steven Stelfox returns in the new John Niven novel, Kill ‘Em All. It’s been twenty years since the rampage that takes place in the pages of Kill Your Friends, and if anything Stelfox is all the more sordid and bloodthirsty. Monetary success has driven him beyond excess, and to new lows at every pass. He muses that the world is, “A place where ambition still outstrips talent… Where the kind and weak are ripped apart like loaves of bread” (327). He admits early on that regardless of what’s to come he will not grow from the experience. His heart isn’t in the right place, if there’s a heart at all.
The year is 2017. Trump is taking office in the opening pages while Stelfox is presented with a job opportunity. He has settled into the luxuries of light retirement, with the occasional gig as a consultant for music industry big wigs. On this occasion a pop star is being blackmailed for his activities as a sexual predator who preys on children. With the dawning of the era of ‘fake news’ Stelfox takes control of the situation, spins it into something much darker, before he burns everything to the ground… all while making himself a profit.
I don’t want to give much away, so I won’t. Kill ‘Em All is the most wretched fun I’ve had in a long time. Niven never disappoints, and Stelfox is his most satirical creation, a modern vice figure who tells the audience just enough to keep them guessing. It’s blatantly offensive. I can’t recommend this book to everyone. It’s not for everyone. But if you’re looking for something ugly I’d start with Kill Your Friends, then move on to Kill ‘Em All.
No Good Deed examines and satirizes the complications of long-term friendships. We’re brought in on the premise that our main character offers some money to a homeless person, and is thanked by name. After an awkward moment Alan realizes he’s staring at his childhood friend, Craig. He takes his old friend to a pub, and then to his home in an attempt to help him up.
Alan’s a semi famous food critic. Craig played guitar for a band that got big in the early 90’s, and then fizzled out. It feels of an age-old story where the emphasis resides upon the reversal of fortune. Themes of carnival surface as one character is brought up, while the other descends to ruin. These classical notions mixed with contemporary commentary make for an excellent piece of cultural satire. Niven delivers, again.
It is the unspoken feelings long harbored between the two main characters that motivate them to actions both comical and wretched. Distance of years would not change how they felt about each other. It is expressed that, “all the money and fame imaginable could never re-engineer how we come to define ourselves as teenagers” (165). I found myself laughing out loud at the insults, and feeling a genuine emotional investment when dealing with the prospect of loss.
At one point Craig is being interviewed about his story. He is honest about his spiteful feelings toward Alan, and describes him with a harshness that seems far away from the warm feelings we typically associate with friendships. Niven offers an insight that feels all too relatable,
“It did make her slightly sad, however, the realization- common to many jobbing journalists who must routinely deliver copy crafted to suit many different publications – that lurking beneath the piece she was going to write about the life-affirming powers of friendship, there was another piece, a different piece, a better piece. One about the strange currents and deep, dark pools that hide beneath the surface of many lifelong friendships, especially ones that have involved dramatic reversal of fortune” (198).
It’s just fantastic. Probably the best overall work from Niven. My personal favorite since The Second Coming.