Gavin Carville travels to Romania in Jason Johnson's latest
Henry Sender has inherited something valuable from a member of his old foster family.
It’s lucrative, successful and will demand regular trips across Europe.
The fact it’s a porno site doesn’t dampen his certainty that his bad run of luck has finally changed.
From his Belfast home, Henry investigates his newly acquired property and encounters Alina, one of many young women on his payroll. Alina works from a small room in Romania, performing in front of a webcam for a global community of credit card holding voyeurs.
They begin to email and form a hesitant friendship, and it’s not long before Henry decides he has to meet this woman face to face.
Henry leaves Belfast for Romania in the company of local heavy, Shuff Sheridan. Sheridan is a disciple of an obscure book called The Last Door, which preaches the idea of abandoning all moral parameters for a life of violence and hedonism.
Shuff gives a display of his devotion to the cause in a bloody stop-over in London before they arrive in Romania to seek out Henry’s new love. But in the city of Iasi the men encounter opposition that results in a night of drug-taking, bloodshed and murder.
You couldn’t say Jason Johnson lacks ambition as a writer. After the post-ceasefire espionage of Woundlicker, he has moved on to the equally shady world of pornography and people-trafficking. The novel opens in Belfast but we’re quickly free of the city and moving through the streets of a much different European landscape.
At first Alina is merely an employee working for Sender’s website, but Johnson seeks to humanise the woman at the other end of the webcam, mechanically performing sex acts for her public while concealing a turbulent past.
We learn that Alina’s father was involved in the Ceausescu regime and his growing debts drove her into online porn, with its illusory promise of eventual emancipation. Her swift fall into this monotonous routine is detailed over a few brisk pages, exposing an industry that likes to think of itself as a harmless ‘recreation’, as something more troubling and dark.
Henry hopes to rescue Alina but has chosen the wrong company for this to succeed. Shuff Sheridan is a massive presence in the book, a psychopath who employs violence wherever he goes, fully aware of the awful consequences.
Johnson’s prose is confident, and the dialogue frequently very funny. Less successful is the unlikely sub-plot involving Francis Cleary, an ageing writer who was Sheridan’s last victim before leaving for his trip with Henry.
Johnson asks the reader to believe a man who self-publishes a book of cod-philosophy would land a University post, and the whole thing never earns its keep in the book. As the novel comes to its brutal climax, the sheer scale of the subject matter seems to overwhelm him, but as a second novel it displays a great deal of promise and flair. Johnson is a challenging new voice.
Alina by Jason Johnson
Blackstaff Press - £6.99