Smokeheads, by Doug Johnstone

Article published on August 8, 2011.

Doug Johnstone has a PhD in Nuclear Physics. However, it’s conceivable he knows far less about the properties of the atom than he does about whisky. As a real ale lover myself, I stand in awe of Johnstone’s knowledge of Scotch, discussed at great length in his new book, Smokeheads.

Smokeheads is the tale of a quartet of old university friends, gathered together for a weekend on the island of Islay for the purposes of whisky appreciation and high-grade cocaine abuse. Their trip, however, is ill-starred in the extreme, and soon descends into the realm of nightmare.

As could be inferred both from the title and the booze-fuelled, coke-addled lads’ holiday at the heart of the story, Smokeheads is pure lad’s mag fiction. The characters, while not notably deep, should be identifiable within the social circle of any thirty-something male; Roddy is a brash egotist, Luke a drifting enigma, Ethan is the “Mr Average” of the piece, destined for a steady income and 2.4 children, and Adam, the main protagonist, in an earnest but directionless guy with a bookish fascination with whisky.

As a result, the banter between the group rings emphatically true. The foul-mouthed put-downs flow as freely as the single malt, ensuring regular laughs in the opening section before events take a turn for Wicker Man territory. The shift in the narrative is well foreshadowed, but when it arrives it hits hard. Johnstone swiftly shifts gears from a tale of a buddy holiday to something seriously sinister. The violence thereafter is graphic but not gratuitous, and the bleak setting contributes neatly to both the plot and the mood of the text. The community on Islay is cast as extremely insular, but its insularity is well grounded; Johnstone casts aside the stereotypes of inbred, six-fingered villains in favour of a community forced into a firm cohesion by socio-political factors.  As events become progressively darker, Islay society comes to the fore, giving a sense of plausibility to events and allowing Johnstone to take the plot in directions prohibited by urban environments.

Smokeheads is not the most cerebral fare, but never pretends otherwise. Johnstone’s writing is sparse, but does allow for regular moments of contemplation. The August release date for the paperback is fine timing; as a holiday read, Smokeheads does the business most effectively.

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