The Amateurs: Golf, Swearing & Comedy

I had really, really hoped that I would like the novel The Amateurs, by John Niven, as I’d been given a copy in exchange for a review on the blog. Fortunately for me, the comedy was strong with this one.

John Niven's 'The Amateurs' (Amazon)

On the one hand, it was a book about golf, which isn’t generally my kind of thing, but on the other hand it was described as “a tale of infidelity, contract killing and … golf”, which sounded deliciously bizarre, and it was obviously a comedy.

Also, I’m not actively anti-golf; I vaguely follow the Ryder cup and stuff, I’m more anti golf bores, having spent time in the pub with them before desperately trying to get them to understand that the rest of us didn’t actually want to talk about bloody golf. Unless it’s crazy golf, but that’s par for the course.

Our hero, Gary Irvine strikes me as someone who, if presented differently, could have been that golf bore. The way in which golf pervades and infects his entire life is made clear by the way Gary visualises all of the distances he encounters as golf shots of one type or another — the size of a factory is described with:

You could comfortably hit a five-wood the length of the placeJohn Niven, The Amateurs

The basic premise: Gary is from Ardgirvan in Scotland. He wants kids and a lower golf handicap. Neither look likely — his wife is trying to fasten her claws into someone with more cash, and he’s bloody awful at golf. Gary’s brother is busy messing up a drug deal and upsetting the local crime family, the Campbells. Until Gary gets struck by a flying golf ball, which (after sending him into a coma) results in him having developed an almost perfect golf swing and managing to qualify for the Open as an amateur, resulting in him teeing off with his golfing hero. Unfortunately, there are also some less beneficial side effects to the neurological damage too…

Gary is a downtrodden husband with a thoroughly dislikeable wife. The downtrodden-ness is apparent in the first few pages, and raised a wry smile at Gary’s predicament, but approaching the end of the first chapter, I had yet to match the reviewer listed on the back of the book who had “laughed out loud more times than I can remember”. Until, that is, Gary encountered the postman.

I really can’t say any more about it than that; but that was the first moment which made me laugh out loud at Gary’s predicament, and laugh out loud in public too. It’s one of those moments where, if you’ve read the book, you’ll know it, and if you haven’t, then I can’t explain it to you without completely spoiling it. The postman. Remember that.

The disalogue is well structured and as well as the out-loud laughs, there were a lot of inner chuckles of recognition at some of the dialogue between Gary and his mate Stevie and also Gary’s mother. It’s funny because it’s mad, but you recognise it too. Take for example the “AutoAye”. For those outside the North, think of this of an “AutoYes” or an “AutoUhHuh”. It’s about those little noises you make in a conversation when you aren’t really taking part…

With his mum safely onto recounting an anecdote Gary was free to stop listening. He could switch to AutoAye and plan the rest of his day offJohn Niven, The Amateurs

I had expected that this observation, once used and having generated the appropriate humour, would then disappear quietly from the book, having succeeded in its task of raising that chuckle of recognition. And it very nearly did; until we encounter Uncle Danny, master of the AutoAye:

Uncle Danny had been hearing this story, or ones very like it, for over forty years now. His AutoAye facility was superhuman, as sharpened and attuned as the senses of a tiger in the dark, wet heart of the jungle. Just by faintly monitoring Sadie’s conversations (or rather monologues) he could sense when a response was required from him, the depth of sincerity, curiosity or surprise his ‘Aye’ would have to convey (’Aye’ or ‘Aye?’ or ‘Aye!’), and — most crucially — whether the situation was so severe he would actually have to look up from the paper or away from the TV setJohn Niven, The Amateurs

How likely it is that being struck by a golf ball could — even in the circumstances described — turn you into a perfect golfer may be open to debate but as this is the central premise of the book, you just take this one as read. Being critical of the book for this reason would be a little like saying that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a pile of pants because you don’t believe in vampires.

Initially, I felt that the character of Pauline, Gary’s wife, seemed a little over-stereotyped, but as the storyline progressed, I began to wonder whether this was actually deliberate. It’s entirely possible that she was deliberately painted as shallow and two dimensional for comic effect — with the two-dimensional aspect of the character emphasising the shallow nature of her personality. Certainly some of the other characters have elements of their personality which seem to be over-egged for comic effect, but this works. It’s funny, and it doesn’t make them unbelievable.

For me, what “wins” in this case is the storyline. It is very centred in Scotland, with many lines of dialogue in ‘Scottish’ –

Now, come tae fuck, we all know you couldnae huv thought of this on your ownRanta Campbell, speaking in John Niven’s The Amateurs

– but considerably less dense in terms of ‘Scot’ than you might find from your Irvine Welsh, so I found the book easier to read, with the language adding an element of authenticity, rather than feeling it was something that I needed to translate. Where was I?

Oh yes, the story.

Well, the basic premise is as described, but the journey there is the fun part, and John Niven managed to pull out a little surprise at the end of the book (while I half expected thing A to happen, the results of it weren’t exactly as I had surmised). You don’t have to enjoy golf to enjoy it. You just have to be willing to relax, smile and enjoy the madness of it all, while chuckling at the bits (whichever bits they are) that you happen to recognise from life…

The book does contain some swearing (who the fuck am I kidding? there’s quite a lot); some sexual references, so it might not be the ideal present for your 70-year old grandad who likes golf, unless of course he doesn’t mind that sort of thing. But on the other hand, it might well work as a present for someone who isn’t really that bothered about golf, but does like a well-observed foul-mouthed Scottish comedy.

The Amateurs is officially released on the 2nd of April.

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