It is hard to read Doug Johnstone’s The Ossians without suspecting that he has put a lot of his own life into it. Johnstone’s second novel is a rock biography of Connor, lead singer in the eponymous Edinburgh band. It is also a road novel that follows the band as they tour Scotland counter-clockwise in search of fans, artistic authenticity and a record contract.
It is often said that a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Ossians has a slow beginning, a meandering middle, and an excellent ending. At the start, the author devotes far too much space to inert narrative in which not much is at stake. The initial chapters primarily serve the needs of characterization and allow him to work in some lengthy musings on Scottish identity.
Things pick up towards the middle. As the band goes from town to town, the novel settles into a more steady rhythm. Amid the tedium of gigs, drug taking, lovers’ arguments and car journeys, enough interesting things happen to keep the story afloat. Connor gets himself into a series of increasingly idiotic situations, but always manages to extricate himself, or at least survive. Relationships deepen. Back stories are filled in. It’s not masterful, but it works.
The end of the novel is quite accomplished. It gallops along, gaining momentum as sub plots rally to their conclusions. With a hundred pages left, Johnstone has enough balls in the air that you wonder how he’s going to avoid dropping any. He juggles them well, however, and concocts a denouement that resolves the main conflicts while avoiding an excessive feeling of finality, hinting at the characters’ future directions.
In term of style, the novel is by turns pleasingly lyrical and unnecessarily crude. The fucks and shits are applied liberally. Don’t think I have a problem with that. I most certainly don’t, but the sheer density of swear words surpasses the requirements of characterization and setting. The same goes for musician jargon. In some passages, Johnstone’s desire to establish authenticity leads him to lay it on thick with descriptions of amps, guitars, drum kits and PA systems. These bits read like something out of Guitar Techniques. I am inclined to think that swearing and jargon should be dispensed with the same stinginess as dialect; a little goes a long way.
If the book loses any marks in this department, however, it makes them up by affording us the opportunity to actually hear the fictional band whose career it charts. Johnstone and his own band have composed and recorded some of their songs, and uploaded them to a Myspace page. And the songs are pretty good. Slow, chilled out indie with a distorted edge. I played the songs on repeat while I was finishing off this review.
For all the good things about the novel, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by it. Doug Johnstone’s talent is conspicuous and I suspect that he is capable of producing something much tighter. Maybe he has done that with Smokeheads, his latest novel. Nevertheless, The Ossians is a fun book with a few faults and a great many nice touches. You should read it.