The Edgier Waters of Fiction
Jason Johnson launches his second novel, Alina
Shuff Sheridan. A likeable rogue who's quickly revealed to be a depraved maniac, devoid of conscience and fuelled by drugs and violence.
Henry Sender, a bipolar and anxious Englishman who has inherited a pornographic website and troubled conscience from a dying foster mother.
And Francis MN Cleary, the serial confessor who spends the whole story in a Belfast oil tank. These are but a few of the characters in Alina, the second novel from literary upstart Jason Johnson.
The story follows Sender and his hired protector Sheridan from Belfast to Romania, on the trail of the missing Alina. Henry finds himself sidelined by Sheridan’s unquenchable thirst for booze, something that leads the pair into many a bar and nightclub - and into some exceptionally shady situations.
You’re forced to wonder if real-life drunken escapades played a part in the research.
‘When you go into bars, particularly in cities like Belfast, there’s a hard drinking culture that can strip away layers of people. I really wanted to get down to the base of the characters,’ says Johnson, ahead of the official launch of the novel at the Linen Hall Library.
'Base' is an appropriate word to use. Sheridan is a character with a limitless appetite for indulging every desire. He doesn't ask, he simply takes.
‘If you bring the element of alcohol and drugs into it you can get to the heart and soul of a person because the inhibitions fade away. It can be used as a device to expose people.’
After the launch of his first book, 2005’s Woundlicker, Nell McCafferty bestowed upon Johnson the flattering mantle of 'the Irish Irvine Welsh'. In their output thus far, both novelists have shared an exploration of the grimy underbelly of experience, a studied dissection of the dirt beneath the fingernails of day-to-day life.
Both employ the vernacular of their respective countries, and it is a comparison which Johnson considers flattering, if not wholly deserved.
‘I’m not even on the same boat as Irvine Welsh,’ he says, pointing out differences in their first efforts.
‘His first book, Trainspotting, was about very strong characters being brought down by very strong drugs. Mine was about a wee spide who hates life in Belfast. I’ve come out best with that comparison.’
Johnson is humbly dismissive of possible influences on his work.
‘I don’t feel that I take influences from anywhere. People have said that they see a bit of this, a bit of that - but I have few heroes who are authors.
‘As a journalist for years and years, particularly working on the tabloid papers, I think I take some style from there. But from other novelists, I wouldn’t hazard a guess.’
Where Welsh wrote Trainspotting completely in Edinburgh’s vernacular, Johnson judiciously employs the Belfast brogue, liberally sprinkling the speech with expletives in a relatively accurate appropriation of some of the city’s conversations:
“‘Did Mummy not tell her to leave us alone?’
‘She’s nat going to let them in again.’
Says Rosie: ‘But she f**ken talked to her about leavin us alone the last time, didn’t she?’
‘Yes. Didn’t I f**ken say yes? What f**ken language do you speak?’”
‘I’ve kind of taken the easy route by changing one or two words that are always said the same way,' Johnson elaborates, ‘And perhaps put them in a sentence which might sum up the attitude of the odd Belfast headcase.’
‘I find it a funny way to write. It’s enjoyable because I can hear the words in my head as I write and it makes me laugh. It makes writing good craic. I wouldn’t say that it’s in any kind of accurate prose that’s true to the city, I just cut a few corners and did the best I could.’
The language of 'the odd Belfast headcase' makes for interesting reading. Does Johnson consider Belfast to be a 'literary' city?
'It's a city with some sort of romance to it,' he considers. 'People here do talk about things that have inspired them. The art of conversation here can be quite unusual because often, when we meet in public places, we don't talk about 'the elephant in the room'.
'There's a lyrical thing in the way people speak here. There's a pub called the John Hewitt. Everyone in that bar knows who he is and would toast him the odd time with a pint of Guinness.
'With pubs that are named after major literary figures, around the world, you wouldn't necessarily find that the punters have any clue whose name is above the door. This is a city where we would, we'd be interested in that.'
Alina quickly swaps Belfast for Iasi in Romania, a location which affords Johnson the opportunity to explore a country torn asunder by an oppressive and abusive political regime. It is a sobering background to the indulgences of Sheridan and his reluctant partner.
It is a territory selected by Johnson as a result of direct experience and time spent in the region.
‘Some years ago I went over to Romania and spent time working in an orphanage there, helping to redecorate. Some of the kids there were very young and dying of AIDS. Some of them will be dead now, they simply didn’t have access to the right drugs and medicines.
‘There was a fair few of us went out and when you’re there you get on with the thing. It’s only when you come back you find that there’s a ‘ghost’ which has travelled with you.
‘It was that which led me on to reading more about it, as these people were direct victims of Nikolai Ceausescu and they’re still there today. This is the Hitler of our times.’
Alina isn’t, of course, an indulgent hellride through violence, booze, drugs and pornography. Its madness is tempered with conscience, and through the contrasting characters we get glimpses of differing approaches to morals and responsibility.
‘I think it boils down to conscience’, says Johnson, when pressed as to where ‘the beating heart’ of the novel lies. ‘There’s a very prominent character who argues that he has managed to kill his conscience and that this has empowered him.
‘There’s an allegorical connection between him and Ceausescu. He was responsible for something in the region of 60,000 deaths on his own country and never regretted a single minute of it.
‘Each character, in one way or another is struggling with their conscience, struggling with things that have happened to them in the past and trying to readjust themselves.
'If I were to bring it down to one thing, it would be that one thing that we carry around with us and deal with in different ways. We all try to stay out of its jaws, because it can weigh heavy on you.’