Doug Johnstone - Smokeheads
Contemporary black comedy thriller, or 'Whisky Galore! meets Deliverance’
Doug Johnstone has used his love of whisky to explore the modern Scottish psyche. David Pollock shares a nip and hears about some bad boys
‘My dad put me onto single malts at an early age,’ says Doug Johnstone on the phone from his home in Portobello. ‘I mean, not that early, not when I was a nipper, but I started young.’ In which case, planning his new novel Smokeheads must have been a bind. ‘One of the characters works at the Laphroaig distillery, so it was a good excuse to go over there and do some research. I prefer the Islay whiskies myself because they’re so powerful and peaty, and the fact whisky novices don’t like them is good enough for me.’
Although Smokeheads is Johnstone’s third published novel following his debut Tombstoning and 2008’s The Ossians, it’s actually the fourth one he’s completed. ‘I wrote a big commercial epic called The Coal Biter after The Ossians,’ he says. ‘For various reasons, it has never seen the light of day. Mainly because I think it’s crap, although I might come back to it one day. So Smokeheads was a kind of antidote to that; I just thought, fuck it, I’m going to write a short, nasty rollercoaster thrill ride of a book.’
Described by the author himself as ‘Whisky Galore! meets Deliverance’, it follows four thirtysomething friends on a road trip to Islay, where things inevitably take a turn for the unpleasant. ‘When you say it’s a thriller, people think of airport novelists like John Grisham and James Patterson. It’s got virtually nothing in common with them, it’s very much a black comedy, a contemporary Scottish thriller. The idea came to me when I was reading Sideways, and because I was reading a lot of American noir at the time.’
It wasn’t just a matter of switching one drink for another in this version, though. Johnstone’s books have sought to look at the Scottish psyche in the 21st century, and whisky seemed the ideal motif to explore it again. ‘It’s something Scotland is famous for around the world and it earns vast amounts of money, but a lot of it then goes to multinational companies who aren’t even based here. Plus that hard drinkin’, hard liquor Scottish stereotype persists abroad.’
In the book, the main character Adam is a whisky snob and a bit of a slacker who’s achieved very little in his life. ‘I’m sure there’s some not very deep psychology involved here but all my main characters are blokes who are a bit hapless, a bit shapeless, who don’t really have control of their lives.’ One of Adam’s mates is a successful banker, the awful Roddy (‘no one’s going to believe this was written before the banking collapse’) and their interplay attempts to mirror two aspects of Scotland: the outgoing, brash side and the underachieving, hapless side.
Smokeheads is the first of a two-book deal with Faber following the end of Johnstone’s time with Penguin, and the follow-up (working title: The Radical Road) is finished already. That adds up to five books in a little over seven years, clearly the kind of disciplined writing Johnstone has learned in his career as an arts journalist for publications including this one. ‘The next one’s even more stripped down than Smokeheads. To the bare bones.’
Smokeheads is published by Faber on Thu 3 Mar.