After a run of thrilling novels that include the The Ossians, Smokeheads and Hit & Run you might think that you would be able to recognise a Doug Johnstone novel from the first couple of pages. His latest, Gone Again, proves that to be both true and false.
The style is recognisably his, with short punchy sentences and no excess description, exposition or dialogue, but there are no hangovers, drugs, broken jaws or laws in evidence. Give it time. Gone Again opens with Mark Douglas, a newspaper photographer trying in vain to get suitably spectacular pictures of a school of whales which have been spotted in the Firth of Forth. It’s a surprisingly gentle opening, although he does suggest that one option for the school is mass suicide. But within a few pages Johnstone introduces a note of jeopardy, a very real nightmare scenario, and we’re away again.
Mark receives a phone call from his son’s school and from that his life begins to unravel at a pace which is breathtaking while always remaining believable. His wife, Lauren, is missing and Mark’s growing paranoia is understandable. What Johnstone captures brilliantly is the feeling that accompanies a situation where you are helpless, when you fear the worst in your bones while others try to assure you that everything will be alright. Knowing you’re right and everyone else is wrong can be the emptiest victory imaginable.
Johnstone’s novels have always touched on the complexities of close relationships, whether family, friends or lovers. This time it is that between parent and child. It is the honesty and reality of the interaction between Mark and his young son Nathan that gives Gone Again a greater depth of emotion than the writer’s previous work. It is the little things that get you. The loss of Nathan’s first tooth, his sentimental attachment to a small piece of sea glass, the unwavering trust that Nathan has in his father, something that Mark is aware won’t last too much longer.
There are moments when it is Nathan who is the more mature one in the relationship. Mark’s natural, and understandable, instinct to protect Nathan at all costs means confronting any who threaten his son and it is in such moments that Nathan proves to be the bigger man. Johnstone shows that in times of stress or when being attacked man (and Johnstone’s books are primarily about men) loses the pretence of social expectations and rules to act in an instinctive, animal, manner. In such cases Mark lashes out to protect his family, but also because he feels that the time for reason is over.
What Johnstone manages to do is to make you believe that Mark could be capable of excessive acts of violence, to place doubt in the reader’s head just as it starts to appear in those of other characters. As in his previous books, Gone Again has a protagonist who is willing to go to extremes, to eschew the expectations of others. Extreme times call for extreme measures and when everything goes so spectacularly wrong normal rules don’t apply. In such circumstances everyone is capable of losing control. It might not be the right thing to do, but it’s better than doing nothing.
What may surprise readers is how moving parts of Gone Again are. Johnstone gets the relationship between father and son spot on, and considering how matters unfold it would be odd if things didn’t get emotional. But there are actually two key relationships in the book; that between Mark and Nathan and the one between Mark and Ruth, his mother-in-law, which is not so much strained but completely broken before Lauren’s disappearance. They realise that as the days, hours and minutes pass they increasingly rely on each other. The scene that moved me the most was one between these two, where they share their worst fears, and although they may not love each other their shared love of another brings them together
Have no fear, this isn’t Johnstone’s AOR album, there is more than enough visceral violence and attitude to satisfy regular readers. He once again manages to be thrilling and entertaining while asking questions of how men are. In last year’s review of Hit and Run I suggested it was the literary equivalent of a Ramones song; ‘1-2-3-4…’ and we’ll see you on the other side. Gone Again is more like Teenage Kicks or Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve), still recognisably punk; angry and unsettling, but with heart, soul and raw emotion. But what happened to those whales, you ask? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out.