THE LAST DAYS OF JOHNNY NORTH
By David Swann
Reviewed by Terry Gates-Grimwood
Despite the fact that I spent my formative years and adolescence in the Suffolk countryside (indeed, I still live there and I'm still forming) the tales in this magnificent collection of north-based stories were like reading about my own youth. So evocative is David Swann's writing, you can the feel, hear and smell the 1970s.
I am making an assumption here, that it was the era when many of these tales were set, that's what it felt like. If I'm wrong, then please forgive me.
David Swann has captured something here, something hard to define; a realism so intense that it is almost sur-real. That fact-is-stranger-than-fiction quality life has when you actually write down what happens to you day by day.
And his prose! It was a delight to my reading palate; cut down, stripped bare, so sharp it'll cut your fingers if you're not careful when turning the pages. A feast of short, punchy sentences filled with the random thoughts and dialogue that punctuates real life.
The opening story, The Boggart Hole, gripped me from the first page, brimming with countless observations of the countryside from the point of view of a teenage town girl. No Emmerdale Farm romanticised picture of rural life this; no, here you'll find a cast of dour, menacing, closed in strangers. Just how I remember it.
Then there's Except in Song, a marvellous brooding tale of a country and western singer during the hours before his band's debut in Blackpool, all seen through the proud and puzzled eyes of his son. Time is a-wasting, the sense that something is wrong grows; there is a dreamlike urgency, why won't he speak? A Harbour in the Hills was one of my personal favourites, the odd story of the dynamics between four very different people when an aeroplane makes an emergency landing in a lonely valley. Speedbone Sauna Blues follows an exhausted teacher into a well-earned sauna, then subjects him to an invasion by a gang of loutish slaughterhouse workers. I've met those loud, feeling-less oafs. We all have.
One of the masterpieces of the collection is In The Country of Daft Pink Things. Worth it for the title alone. A lemmings-being-led narrative starring a pair of very affecting characters on an odyssey through a bland housing estate.
As I mentioned earlier, many of the stories are told through the eyes of children and teenagers, and David Swann's portrayal of the world through their eyes matches the authenticity of Stephen King, one of the world's best childhood revivers. The world becomes surreal and adults, bigger children trying to make sense of the world around them and creating even greater idiocies and enigmas while trying to hide their own puzzlement and fear.
The collection ends with an intensely moving and riveting account of a writer in residence during his year at Nottingham jail. A fitting end to a great collection.
Unpredictable, infuriating, puzzling and vivid, The Last Days of Johnny North is a book of surprises and delights.
So go on, you know it makes sense.
The Last Days of Johnny North by David Swann. Tpb, 296pp, £6.00. Published by Elastic Press, 85 Gertrude Road, Norwich, Norfolk NR3 4SG, UK
Website: - www.elasticpress.com
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