Review: Sinker by Jason Johnson

I recently reviewed Jason Johnson’s new novel, Sinker for Issue 2 of the Incubator journal. Incubator is a new online journal with a strong focus on contemporary writing from NI / Ireland. This is my second connection with Incubator as my story ‘Saint Perpetua’ was published in their first issue.

You can read Issue 2 of The Incubator Journal here. As well as my review it also includes:

Interview: Cherry Smyth, interviewed by Claire Savage.

Review: Orla McAlinden on Malcolm Orange Disappears, by Jan Carson.

Plays: Paula Matthews. Jamie Guiney.

Fiction: Marie Gethins. Laura Cameron. James Meredith. Aoibheann McCann. Tom O’Connell. Deirdre McClay. David Braziel. Lynda Tavakoli. Paul McCaffrey. D. Joyce-Ahearne. Eve-Marie Power. Chris McLaughlin.

The review is reproduced here:

Review: Sinker by Jason Johnson

Set in an alternate present day, where drinking alcohol to excess is a professional sport, Sinker drops us head first into the life of Derry born law dropout, Baker Forley, a new recruit into this reviled and controversial sport. He’s not an alcoholic though, he doesn’t even like to drink socially, he’s just there to make some money and do something with his empty life. He teams up with an arse-groping American drinking coach called Ratface and heads to sunny Mallorca for the infamous Bullfight drinking battle.

It’s all going to plan until the heat gets to Baker and he stares at the wrong woman in the crowd, a mysterious Arabian beauty called Crystal and is knocked out by her Saudi oil-baron husband’s heavy, a bodyguard called Nap.

Afterwards the alcoholic Saudi feels guilty about Baker losing out in the Bullfight and to make amends he invites Baker and Ratface to his Gaudi-designed home so they can teach him how to drink like a professional. And he’s willing to pay handsomely for their services.

But this is not the real reason they are invited over. Others in the background are conspiring to use Baker for more than his drinking skills. As he drinks to excess in the hot sun hidden lust surfaces, Baker learns the truth about why he’s been invited and must escape before he loses everything.

This novel is described as, ‘inspired by the power and complexity of addiction, Sinker is a thrilling, irreverent yet often joyful take on a hopeless but changing male drinking culture.’

The story opens strongly and hooks you in. At the start of the novel Johnson builds his world well; we get the history and rules of the sport of Professional Drinking. You can sense he really enjoyed creating this aspect of the story. We hear the commentary on it from a liberal media which hates the sport and wants it banned.

‘Sink has been called ‘the most disturbing so-called sport on the face of the earth and the one which prove most concisely that mankind is mad, self-destructive and, worse, likes being that way.’.’

‘Protesters wave placards calling for a ban and shout statistics about the sport and the lifespan of livers and the empty, endless void of death, and stuff like that.’

An interesting aspect of Sinker is the way it explores drinking and modern masculinity by pushing it to its most extreme. It’s a hyper-real version of the way thousands of people behave every weekend in pubs throughout Ireland and Britain. The first half of the novel is explores this deformed male drinking culture really well. For example, when Ratface gives Baker advice on how to perform at the Bullfight: ‘He says, ‘Besides, you’re a man, M-A-N. Tough and mean and dick muscle and rising to the occasion. Alpha it up, okay? Control your environment, got it?’ To be a real alpha male, with a big dick your must drink. Sex and drinking are here exposed as intertwined. It exposes the pressure on men to drink hard to show how manly they are.

Johnson is also a good at continually creating fresh and unusual images. The house where the Saudi lives is an absurdist, Dali-esque nightmare. It’s so odd one character even dies by water fountain. Another example is at the end of the novel when they are on the run from danger and head deep underground, ‘It’s like we’re stuck now, nowhere, in the middle of zero, dark as the inside of a horse, right on the edge of some sort of hell.’ The house is a warped labyrinth of danger.

The narrator and protagonist Baker Forley is utterly unlikeable, with not one redeemable feature. He is a cynical, self-obsessed loser who punctuates every idea with an expletive or ‘some shite’. He is the modern anti-hero, he’s laconic, laid back, to use his own words he doesn’t give a shite. But the problem with this is at times he feels so laid back he’s not even interested in the story he’s telling or his own life.

Hi coach is a man called Ratface. He is an American expert of the sport of Professional Drinking. A sort of alcoholic Mr. Miyagi. He has a nasty habit of grabbing Baker’s arse without permission. This is supposed to be funny but is overused. Ratface is his nickname because he looks like a rat. I have a problem with this way naming of a character. It’s too reductive. It seems a cool thing to do for a generation raised on Tarantino movies; and while it can work on screen where we see the character not just the name, on the page of a book it becomes repetitive and reduces the character to a simple idea: this character is a rat, he cannot be trusted.

Baker and Ratface are the two most developed characters and their relationship exposes a truth typical to many male relationships. They constantly argue and insult each other; they never permit themselves to get along. But the other characters and relationships are underdeveloped. Women in particular don’t fare well. The only real female character is Crystal, whose only role in the story appears is to be an object of Baker’s desire and to deceive him. She is the ice-cold femme fatale. We learn very little about her and why she acts as she does. The only other women in the story stand around looking sexy and serving beer. The Saudi oil-baron and Nap the Bodyguard are even more undeveloped. The Saudi is a rich alcoholic while Nap is a bodyguard with a heart of gold who can’t hold his drink.

Overall Sinker, to use a sporting cliché, is a novel of two halves. When I first started to read the novel it read as an interesting comment on the male drinking culture, but this aspect disappears. It could have done a lot more with this idea. Midway during the novel the story shifts and transforms into a warped revenge thriller when a crazy ex-associate of Ratface’s shows up and starts killing characters at with his ice-cold femme fatale at his side. By the end it feels like a missed opportunity.

Jonathan O’Brien

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