Amateur Habits

Amateur Habits

Jefferson Chase review another whisky sodden novel

Whisky & Culture | 03 Jun 2011 | Issue 96 | By Jefferson Chase

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Of all the tasks I’ve faced in more than a decade of writing this column, none has ever been tougher than writing about John Niven’s 2010 novel The Amateurs.

The problem is simple: how to do justice to an absolute cracker of a book whose every page is full of the sort of hilarious-to-the-extreme obscenity that a genteel publication like Whisky Magazine tries to spare its more sensitive readers?
But I’m always up for a challenge, so here goes. The hero, Gary Irvine, is an affable 30-something from Ayrshire whose life would be a dream, were he not married to an unfaithful, materialistic shrew. But what’s even worse: he plays golf.

Scotland’s great sporting invention is like whisky in that it’s wonderfully habit-forming. Unfortunately, for people like Gary, it also requires a modicum of ability:

Golf, it has often been pointed out, is like sex. You don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it. But when you were as bad at it as Gary was…then why? Why keep coming back? The truth was that Gary – like millions of other unfortunates around the globe – hit just enough good golf shots to facilitate a lifelong, soul-destroying addiction.

In another respect, too, golf and sex are similar. Paid lessons don’t necessarily help you improve.

After carding a 117 in one round, the 18-handicaper reverts to that part of the game that never lets him down – destroying his clubs in the parking lot. There, an old boy at his club, the holder of the course record, takes pity on him and coaxes him back out on the fairway to try to correct his wayward approach shots.

After shanking a bucket of balls into the woods, Gary lapses into that all-too-infrequent state serenity that golfers call the Zone:

But now, with Bert whispering to him and the whiff of whisky washing gently across him, reminding him of his father, he looked up towards the green and he could see the ball in flight – a high penetrating arc, drawing slightly into the gentle breeze. Bert sensed Gary wasn’t there any more…He stepped back and Gary’s world was peace and silence as he drew the club back.

The result is a perfect 150-yard 9-iron, the best shot he’s ever hit. Unfortunately, Gary’s also about to get hit – by an errant tee shot from the next hole traveling 186 miles an hour.

The force of impact puts Gary into a brief coma, and when he wakes up, he finds himself changes in two ways. He now suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and an uncontrollable libido in public, but his golf swing has been mysteriously grooved.

A doctor explains:

‘Oh, I’ll come to the masturbation,’ Fuller said casually, as though it were common or garden enough, ‘but as regard, the golf performance, what I think may have happened – and I must stress this is only conjecture – is that the trauma of the cerebellum Gary suffered has served to dramatically reinforce the successful performance of a specific physical action.’

In others words, the prototypical frustrated hacker is now incapable of hitting a bad shot. And Gary’s new-found ability is going to take him to the final round of the British Open, compulsive cursing and onanism unabated.

The Amateurs is vulgar, violent, warm-hearted, cynical and sentimental. It reminds of the things I like so much about Scotland: the food, the drink, the golf, the people and their sense of humour.

In short, it’s one great mother&!!%er of a novel.
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