What if alcoholism was a competitive sport? How would the professional drinkers differ from small-town drunks? That’s the provocative premise of Belfast novelist Jason Johnson’s new comic novel Sinker.
Baker Forley is a young man from Derry with an unusual talent, he can drink more than most people and remain upright without puking (instant disqualification during a competition). After failing at conventional life, he attempts to perfect this one skill. To this end, he finds a manager in Ratface, a retired American competitive drinker, or “Sinker” in the slang of the pro-drinking circuit. After initial success as a newcomer, and having gained the nickname “The Reactor” for reasons that only make sense to the inebriated, he is invited to an exclusive event in Mallorca, featuring only the best sinkers in the world, “The Bullfight.”
It’s a strong premise for a novel, and one that seems to promise a healthy dose of social satire — after all, Irish culture does have a serious problem with alcohol abuse — but, that’s not entirely the avenue Johnson wants to go down. At The Bullfight, things go hilariously wrong for Baker Forley, and in order to make amends and collect a major paycheck (for as Mark Twain might have said, “None but a fool ever drank but for money”), Baker gets involved with a billionaire Sheikh and his incredibly sexy wife, agreeing to teach the Sheikh the secrets of pro drinking over a weekend.
After this point, the pointed satire of drinking culture fades into the background, and the novel becomes more of a madcap adventure as the characters consume more and more alcohol and misfortune piles on misfortune. It becomes clear that Baker and Ratface are being set up as the fall guys for a devious crime. Like a night on the tear, the second half of the book proceeds at a breakneck pace, and increasingly with a logic only the inebriated might follow.
For me, the success of comedy depends on how realistic the characters appear. Writers like Terry Pratchett and Martin Millar populate their novels with fantasy and mythical beings, but ground them by giving their characters very realistic motivations and inner lives. For example, Millar’s Kalix might turn into a werewolf from time to time, but she’s primarily a misfit teen girl looking for friendship and acceptance from her peers; anyone can understand her motivations and fears. Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching is a young girl beginning to understand how the world works; the fact that her world involves magic doesn’t change the effort she must make to comprehend it all and find her place. While Baker Forley’s embrace of competitive drinking as a career is very clearly a man clutching the last straw in an attempt to support himself — and we all can understand where he’s coming from — his situation grows more surreal as everyone’s intoxication increases (and Johnson’s writing become slightly impressionistic in consequence). To be fair, I’m sure this is part of Johnson’s satiric intention: we make crazy decisions under the influence; but, for me it made the comedy begin to fall a bit flat, and the narrative lose some coherence.
Jason Johnson is a witty writer, and there are moments of laugh-out-loud humor and casual profundity throughout. The moment Baker sees Crystal, the sheikh’s sexy wife, he has a drunken epiphany of the ridiculousness of his occupation:
“It hits you, when you see a doll like that and you’re spending your day with the sclerosis squad, with a bunch of guys who look like they should be helping the cops with their enquiries. It’s a tin of empty that hits you in the belly and holds itself there.”
Ultimately, Sinker is a provocative and often amusing read, highlighting the absurdities of binge-drinking by repositioning one of humanity’s greatest weaknesses as a great strength. It is, as the book cover claims, a rather mad novel, but ultimately a thought-provoking one as well.
Other recent Irish comic novels you may enjoy include:
Crash by Julian Gough
From Out of the City by John Kelly
Downturn Abbey by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly
The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy
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