Smoke Heads – Doug Johnstone

Smoke Heads by Doug Johnstone is a book for all you whiskey lovers out there – “cheers” indeed. Unfortunately, for those of you not susceptible to the charms of the good stuff, caveat emptor. It is a rollercoaster drunken ride through the famed Scottish Isle of Islay, with more drams and cocaine than you can shake a drunken stick at. If that sounds like fun to you, you’re right – it should be. However, this book has a fatal flaw: severe lack of credibility verging on the absurd.

This book could have been a contender, and you can at least see what the author was aiming for – a bunch of lads out for a fun-packed weekend in a rural setting, run foul of the “only cop in town” and discover all is not as seems in this supposedly sleepy town. Think Deliverance meets Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and you wouldn’t be far off the author’s intent I feel.

Adam is the central character in this weird romp, and is a likable chap really: harmless, bit awkward with the ladies, and a real whiskey nerd (if such a thing exists).  Roddy then, his “best friend”, is the opposite – thoroughly obnoxious, a complete lady killer, and a whiskey know-nothing. This asymmetry between the two lads forms the basis of this book essentially, and believe me, it gets old quite quickly. What Roddy lacks in taste, he makes up for in money – he is loaded (in comparison to Adam’s skint character), and this too we are constantly reminded of. This constant contrasting of the two central characters is surely deliberate by the author, and perhaps it is meant to be allegorical or clever, but alas, it is in effect merely repetitive and annoying.

The development and detailing of these two guys is important to mention, because it leads us nicely to the main flaw of the book – its lack of believability. The ground work for this is laid in the fact that although we are to buy into this as a lads weekend for four guys, the other duo of the foursome, although present in most scenes in the book’s first half, are never developed character wise, to the extent that they may as well be planks of wood travelling around with Adam and Roddy. This lack of characterization lends to the general air of unbelievability about the tangled web the author is spinning.

The nail in the coffin however, is the descent half way through this book into a completely unbelievable (and probably impossible) Rambo-esque orgy of insane violence and injuries, that leaves the reader in need of a stiff whiskey just to get over the shock of it. The book never recovers, and to be honest, you may as well stop reading half-way through, as its impossible to make any sense from the haze of lunacy and stupidity that descends over the latter half of this book, let alone glean any enjoyment.

I did say earlier on that whiskey aficionados would take something from this read, and that is certainly the case. The first half of the book is undoubtedly enjoyable in places, as the author clearly is a dram-head, and the myriad descriptions of whiskeys throughout is mouth watering. The distillery tours are enlightening, and many famous whiskeys get name-checked. That’s about the kindest thing I can say about this novel unfortunately, and needless to say, it isn’t saying much.

This book could have been a Talisker or Glenmorangie, but thanks to its degeneration into an ending as unbelievable as an Irish politician, it is instead a Chivas Regal. It looks the part and is critically acclaimed by some, but the reality is a terrible drink and an even worse after-taste.

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