Smokeheads is quite simply the kind of shit I want to read, that mix of genre thrills and straight-up character study that never feels like it’s trying to either fill its genre cliches quota nor trying to impress me with its style, themes, or general literary “deepness.” That said, it’s also a fairly hard book to pin down because of that mixture. Yeah, you can throw a bunch of references out there and maybe you’ll get close to what kind of book you’re dealing with: The Wicker Man, which is even name-dropped in the book, is a good place to start, with Deliverance and even The Big Chill also decent jumping off points in this discussion as well. Thing is, whatever Doug Johnstone’s Smokeheads is or isn’t genre-wise, what it most definitely fucking is is dark, exciting, and fucking intense as all hell.
The story begins with four friends in their late-thirties taking a trip to the remote Scottish island of Islay, home of some great single malt distilleries, for a weekend of whisky tasting and over-imbibing. Adam, the biggest whisky nut of the group as well as its biggest underachiever, has plans to use this weekend of fun to pitch a business proposition to his millionaire coked-up asshole buddy Roddy. But instead of getting a handshake from Roddy and his life taking a turn for the better over the course of the weekend, Adam and Rodddy, along with Luke, Ethan and local distillery tour guide, Molly, soon find themselves in a hell like they’ve never known.
Okay, so yeah, that shit was vague as all hell, but the Nerd assures you it is by design. Much like a good horror novel or film (though let the Nerd assure you that there is nothing supernatural about Smokeheads), Doug Johnstone lets the tension build between his well-defined characters then flips their world inside out with a horrible event, with everything after that event being goodbye-fucking-frying-pan-and-hello-raging-fucking-fire.
But while I don’t want to get into what sets the Deliverance portion of the novel into play (and let the Nerd assure you there’s no scene of Ned Beatty squealing like a pig or a discussion of how pretty Jon Voight’s mouth is), I do want to talk Dickey in that Smokeheads does a hell of a job handling masculinity as a theme. (Look who is puttin’ on the ol’ thinkin’ cap today!) You feel Adam’s frustration as he tries to stack up next to his old university pals, against the successful musician Luke, the married nine-to-fiver Ethan, and especially the wildly rich and decadent Roddy, a glorious and unapologetically douchey fund manager. Adam has the smarts and the conscience but none of the balls to get any of his big, beautiful dreams off the ground. He’s the hands-down loser of the group yet also our hero, the guy who we want to see succeed but only really get to see try and survive what fate has put in front of him.
Speaking of masculinity (and characters I’ve yet to address), it’s interesting that the most resourceful and, well, typically masculine character in the story ends up being Molly, the whisky distillery tour guide and Adam’s crush. Whenever the survivors are in a bind they always look to Molly with the question of “What do we do now?” and she always rises to the occasion, with the twist on gender roles never being over-obvious or eye-rollingly lame. Again, the Nerd is being extremely fucking vague here, but Johnstone never takes things like that too far in Smokeheads. The author takes his hum-fucking-dinger of a premise and lets it play itself out organically, never dropping a big stupid twist or a cheat on us in the slightest. Dude doesn’t fucking pull punches but he also doesn’t over complicate his story, and you know the Nerd can get behind that shit something fierce.
Smokeheads is gonna be a major discovery this year for crime cultists, dear reader, I can feel that shit in my bones and my boner. (Maturity!) This shit is too intense, too insightful, and too fucking fresh not to get some great notices and the Nerd, for one, cannot fucking wait for whatever Johnstone puts out next. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go to the liquor store and see if there’s a single malt in my price range. (Yes, I already know the answer to that question.)