Once more into the ditch: Welsh revisits the economically depressed, heroin-sick slums of Edinburgh in this hefty prequel to Trainspotting (1993).
Much like that book, this one is a collection of episodic stories that roughly cohere as a novel, written mostly in Scottish dialect and illuminating the despair of its characters as Thatcher-era Great Britain disassembles the nation’s safety net. Again, the lead character is Mark Renton, a philosophical young man who seems poised to rise above his lower-middle-class station until heroin (i.e., skag) implodes him. Not long after he starts using, he’s dropped out of university and wants to quit drugs but not very badly—in one heartbreaking scene he admits to his girlfriend that he’s more interested in his relationship with heroin than with her. Shifting among various characters’ perspectives, Welsh shows how rapidly addiction sank Mark and his friends, but Welsh is no moralist, and he’s just as likely to mine their lives for humor as pathos. Desperate for consistent fixes, they pursue one harebrained scheme or other—a stint working as mules on a ferryboat goes particularly poorly—and their freewheeling banter shows that if nothing else, the drugs haven’t erased their personalities. Welsh’s themes are repetitive, and there is no reason why this book couldn’t be half as long. But it’s marked by some virtuosic set pieces. In one scene, an addict watches a group of boys drop a puppy down a garbage chute, and his distressing (and heavily metaphorical) trip into the Dumpster encapsulates the junkie’s journey with equal parts horror and comedy. And a lengthy rehab journal by Mark is a witty, fiery, joyously vulgar vision of life in detox, showing how his better self slowly emerges. But as we know from Trainspotting, such moments of redemption rarely last.
Red meat for Welsh cultists, but a heavy load for anybody else.
The third and most willfully irreverent novel yet from Scotland’s answer to William Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr., and, arguably, Howard Stern. Here’s a long howl of hatred and misogyny uttered at full foulmouthed throttle by Bruce Robertson, an Edinburgh police detective whose investigation of a presumably racially motivated murder only intermittently distracts him from routine pursuits of extramarital sex, illegal drugs, and officially sanctioned mayhem. Though he’s nominally a member of the establishment, Bruce has all the qualities one hopes for in an Irvine Welsh character: he’s loud, boorish, xenophobic, racist, sexist, alcoholic, stridently profane, and tormented by flaming eczema (afflicting his not-so-private parts). Oh, and there’s a tapeworm—which occasionally takes over the narrative when Bruce himself isn’t speaking from his gut, as does also estranged wife Carole, a basically normal human who hopes for a reconciliation but doesn’t neglect to take a lover in the meantime. This latter fact is skillfully made crucial to the rather busy plot, which is nicely varied by Bruce’s embattled relationships with disapproving superiors, Racial Awareness sensitivity training, and the willing wives of his fellow officers. The relentlessly confrontational book comes to raucous life in its more abusive and violent scenes (Bruce’s sexual exploitation of a teenaged hooker; a Rabelaisian “holiday” in Amsterdam; a bit of bestiality, involving Bruce’s favorite prostitute and a collie named Angus, that goes hilariously awry).But it founders when Welsh gives his loutish antihero unconvincing moments of reflection (“I feel entrapped by my lust, but when I actually get round to doing it, it just seems so pointless and tedious”), and especially when, in the overcrowded closing pages, the sources of Bruce’s pathology are located in his memories of a grotesque father and of a first love who was killed by lightning. Some marvelous writing, but little of substance that Welsh hasn’t already done better, notably in Trainspotting (1996) and the superb Marabou Stork Nightmares (1996). One wonders if he has written himself out.
A collection of 21 stories and one novella—Welsh's second book, but his first published stateside—that will inevitably be compared to last year's Booker winner, James Kelman. The Scottish dialect, the urban lowlife characters, and the vulgar slang all make a similar claim to authenticity. Welsh's punters prowl the streets of Edinburgh, not Kelman's Glasgow, a distinction likely to be lost on most American readers. In any case, not all of his mean and grungy stories rely on a thick Scottish brogue, though a number of casual pieces are one-joke gimmicks. In the sci-fi-ish ``Vat '96,'' a head is kept alive in a jar while ``his'' wife entertains men in his presence; for ``Where the Debris Meets the Sea,'' four Hollywood glamour girls sit poolside and comment on the bodies of working-class men. Such simple reversal is at the center of the title story, in which a newborn and a teenaged acid head exchange bodies in a freak lightning storm. Welsh's best stories, including the novella, ``A Smart Cunt,'' are mostly days-in-the-lives of aimless, drug-addled fellows who live for sex, football, and violence (often in combination). In ``Eurotrash,'' the narrator goes to Amsterdam to kick his habit, and has an affair with a ``repulsive and ugly'' woman who turns out to be a transsexual. ``Granny's Old Junk'' packs a clever punch when it's revealed that the little old lady who's about to be ripped off by her junky grandson is a longtime user herself. Such brutal ironies come easily to Welsh, as does a nihilism that seems designed for effect. In ``The Last Resort on the Adriatic,'' a ten-year grieving widower joins his wife in a shipside suicide; and the video-obsessed drudge in ``Snuff,'' having seen every film in his guide, records his own suicide on videotape. Welsh often settles for shock value, sleazy sex, and heroin chic, but he's actually a better writer than many who've been here before, especially Burroughs and his epigones.
Welsh, Scotland's brightest young literary rebel (The Acid House, stories, p. 181), weighs in with a technically dazzling and emotionally wrenching portrait of working-class youth wasted in an emotional vacuum. Roy Strang, in his early 20s, enters the story in a coma and leaves it in even worse shape. In between, he recounts his wretched childhood in an Edinburgh housing project, introduces us to his horrific parents and abject siblings (a thug, a slut, and a homosexual), and describes his own unfortunate appearance (his ears stick out; and the family dog mauled him as a kid, leaving him with a lifelong limp). Matters get briefly sunnier when Roy's father, who loathes the sorry state of Scotland, drags the family to South Africa, where the 11-year-old Roy romps in a right-wing paradise amid a pedophilic uncle and numerous species of exotic birds, including the marabou stork, a freakish creature that preys on defenseless flamingoes. Welsh knows a writer's metaphor when he sees one, and it's this—the marabou stork—that Roy will come back, in his fevered coma nightmares, to hunt. With great agility, Welsh manages his slippery, three-pronged story as he traces the teenage Roy's return to Scotland, at the same time continuing with the surreal, ongoing pursuit of the marabou stork—a tale that the author tells in the manner of a mock-colonial narrative. In Scotland, Roy grows up to become a fair computer systems analyst and a superb soccer-gang brawler, but he loses stomach for his aimless life after joining his mates in the gang rape of a club girl. Miraculously, the rapists are found innocent, but by then Roy's had enough of Scotland: He moves to Manchester and discovers salvation in rave culture. It can't last, though, particularly with the rape victim setting out to exact grisly revenge . . . . Welsh's grasp of the grim beauty that lurks in his characters' shattered yearnings is even more solid than his ear for their savage dialect. Magical, without a hint of cloying sentiment. (First serial to Grand Street)
Welsh’s eight-volume novel (Filth, 1999; Ecstasy, 1996, etc.) is a windy exposition lasting two decades and detailing the lives of four Scottish pals who sustain a long friendship.
In any Welsh tale, there will be the matter of diction for the reader to make an early peace with. The author’s distinctively Scottish dialect, rendered with gratingly phonic accuracy here, never quite comes smoothly, making the novel something like a journey in a vehicle that sputters badly. This one is perhaps the most peopled of Welsh’s works (and the longest): the four friends Billy, Terry, Carl, and Gally are each given full treatment—childhoods, the lives of parents, the contours of early home life in a government housing project, or “scheme.” The four unite as friends and early on are involved in a violent rugby (“fitba”) riot where a youth is slashed with a knife. There are also, as the plot reveals, the neighborhood enemies Doyle and Polmont, lifelong antagonists. Of the others, Terry becomes an unpalatable small-time businessman; Billy is a successful boxer and afterward proprietor of an upscale bar and eatery; Carl shoots to modest fame as a musician and deejay; and Gally suddenly learns he has HIV. Flashbacks reveal that a week after the death of Polmont, he had committed suicide by jumping from a bridge, and this iconic instance of mortality stands as a focal point for all subsequent losses sustained by the remaining men. In their 20s, they’re scattered apart. Their marriages are generally broken and their children fatherless; they all threaten, as Terry nicely puts it, to “fade into gray,” into the shabby, grim world of their upbringing. An unexpected encounter with pop star Kathryn Joyner succeeds in highlighting the essential goodness of the men, and the death of Carl’s father reunites them as friends.
A treat for aficionados of local color and connoisseurs of street life and violence. And nearly 500 pages for everyone.
The Trainspotting boys are back and not a whit wiser for the decade that’s passed.
Welsh (Glue, 2001, etc.) knows what a good thing he had with Trainspotting and thought it might be a laugh to see what happened to the pack of Scottish junkies and grifters ten years later, letting them narrate their stories in turn. The focus of this overstuffed comic sequel is Sick Boy, who’s still pulling scams, only with more aplomb. He’s got two primary ones going: renovating an old pub (though the longer he’s into that one, the more legit it seems to get) and directing a porn film with some friends. Renton, who made off with his money years before, is now running a club in Amsterdam and seems to be settling into a pre–middle-age sloth. Begbie is still a psychotic font of rage and invective who’s come out of jail a little earlier than most people thought and is looking for someone to take revenge on. Spud shows up every now and again, a sad portrait of a lifelong junkie hanging on to life only by some cruel joke of the cosmos. Into this boys’ club comes Nikki, a student with a taste for self-degradation who gets involved with Sick Boy and, concurrently, his film. She’s a fascinating figure in that, unlike the rest of these random elements, Welsh actually seems to have taken the time to try to figure out what makes this damaged and self-hating person tick. Sick Boy makes for good reading, as his amoral self sizes up and then dispenses with everyone who crosses his path, always finding the angles. Begbie foams at the mouth in an almost unreadable Scottish patois, while Renton doesn’t add much to the story—and the less said about Spud the better.
Flush with bile, bitter humor, drugs, and sex: a fun few hundred pages spent with the worst that humanity has to offer.
The dangerous symbiotic relationship embracing two profoundly different protagonists forms the core of Scottish-born Welsh’s seventh novel.
“Environmental Health Officer” Danny Skinner inspects restaurants for the Edinburgh City Council, whenever not drinking to blissful excess or pleasuring himself with gorgeous girlfriend Kay. Danny’s bilious contempt for grandstanding celebrity chef Alan De Fretais (whose bestselling amalgam of culinary and erotic advice provides Welsh’s splendid title) draws the ire of his superiors—and opens doors for his nondescript new colleague Brian Kibby. The latter is an innocuous virginal innocent, whose mystification over Danny’s inexplicable contempt for him is exacerbated by his father’s lingering fatal illness, and its effects on his frail mother, Joyce. When Danny is stricken with a “mystery virus” that seems to replicate his father’s ordeal, Danny feels his arrogant cocksureness begin to crumble (“He had come to regard Kibby as his mirror, a road map of his own mortality”). Attempting to mend his dissolute ways, Danny heads for California to seek the father he never knew—but returns to Edinburgh unenlightened, as Brian (who has made a surprising, if incomplete recovery) falls into a pattern of righteous anger that further complicates their compulsive mutual obsessions. The truth about Danny’s heritage, far darker and more despairing than Danny imagines, is in fact buried in the Kibby family’s history. And it stuns them both with savage ironic force in the novel’s extended climax, provoked by Danny’s romantic interest in Brian’s sister Caroline, and a long-untold story finally rescued from silence. Welsh braids these dramatic particulars together with considerable skill, despite a slackening of intensity in segments narrated by peripheral characters, and the relegation of the title subplot to almost incidental status. Nevertheless, the narrative doesn’t let up, and the hammerblows keep landing.
Something new from the antic provocateur whose recent books have been frustratingly uneven. Welsh’s best since his spectacular debut novel Trainspotting.
The Scottish provocateur best-known for his ebulliently racy novels (The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, 2007, etc.) is at it again, in a new collection of four stories and a short novel.
The Welsh we all know and tolerate is loudly displayed in the rambling title story, in which Scots expatriate Mickey Baker, who’s running a pub in the Canary Islands, preys on his well-endowed barmaid, dodges his vengeful ex-wife and frets over the frequent presences of two sinister Spaniards who appear to be planning a mob hit. The humor is engulfed in semi-intelligible Scots dialect, but Welsh’s admirers probably won’t mind. Elsewhere, three young Chicago women—self-described as Desperate Obsessive Girl Snobs (DOGS)—natter on about no-good men, while one of them obsesses over the Korean chef who lives upstairs—especially when her real dog disappears (“The DOGS of Lincoln Park”). Welsh channels Sunset Boulevard in the fitfully involving tale of a would-be screenwriter who discovers, while researching the life of a famed indie-film director, how much he has in common with the latter’s grotesque megalomaniac widow Yolanda (“Miss Arizona”). Also set in the United States, “Rattlesnakes” is really only an extended dirty joke detailing the sexual misunderstandings and violence that ensue after one of the title reptiles bites a stoned male festival-goer you-know-where, requiring that the poison be sucked out from…well, you-know-where. It’s awful, even by Welsh’s ever-diminishing standards. Somewhat better, because it’s set in a world Welsh knows intimately, is the novella Kingdom of Fife, about unemployed DJ Jason King’s farcical pursuit of nubile equestriennes, his R-rated fulminations amusingly counterpointed by the urbane ravings of Jason’s irascible dad, a lifelong socialist who loves “gangsta” rap. Much more of this would have been far better than any of the briefer stories.
Jane Austen might have laughed at Welsh behind her parasol, but wouldn’t have let him into the parlor. Readers who are getting tired of the same old shite may likewise be getting ready to show him the door.
Dime-store psychology and half-baked moralizing undermine this character-driven police procedural.
The fiction of Scotland’s Welsh has traveled quite a distance from Trainspotting, as he returns to a character introduced in Filth (1998), a novel with a generic title similar to this one’s. A sidekick in that book, Scottish DI Ray Lennox, takes center stage here. The investigation of a child rape and murder has left Lennox unhinged, so he is ordered to take recuperative leave with his fiancée, Trudi, in Miami. Obviously his superiors haven’t read enough Florida crime fiction to realize that this cesspool isn’t likely to facilitate Lennox’s recovery. First he decides to discontinue the anti-depressants that have barely been keeping him afloat, and to return to the self-medication of alcohol and illicit drugs. Thus he finds himself increasingly at odds with Trudi, who is obsessed with planning the perfect wedding while Lennox’s psyche continues to spiral downward. What was intended as a romantic getaway to take Lennox far from his troubles instead leads to a binge in which (what a coincidence!) he stumbles upon an American pedophile ring. Against considerable odds (and risking his crumbling relationship with Trudi in the process), he attempts to rescue a young girl in Florida as some sort of compensation for his failure to do the same in Scotland. A clever stylistic strategy is to alternate conventional, third-person, present-tense narration with second-person past-tense flashbacks (thus allowing the reader to enter Lennox’s mind as “you”). Yet the novel is weakest when Welsh tries to provide the underpinnings for his protagonist’s obsession in a boyhood trauma and dysfunctional family. Though Lennox is “depressed, lonely, and hung-over in a strange place, without his medication and possibly more vulnerable than he’d ever been in his life,” he’s ultimately the closest thing to a hero that the novelist has allowed himself to create.
A good man in a very bad world, Lennox deserves a thematically richer novel.
A blast from the past: eight doses of Scotsploitation and ultraviolence from Welsh’s poisonous pen (Crime, 2008, etc.).
While the characters who populate his novels are aging far from gracefully, fans will still likely be happy to see their familiar faces in this collection of 1990s work rescued from various anthologies and now-defunct magazines. Welsh also contributes a new story, “I Am Miami,” the most substantive and best-written of the lot. It demonstrates several of the author’s strengths, simultaneously drawing an unkindly, realistic portrait of an aging, widowed schoolteacher, Albert Black, and disrupting his elegiac reflections with the sudden appearance of two riotous characters from Glue (2001), “Juice” Terry Lawson and Carl Ewart, now a world-famous DJ known as N-Sign. Though Black beat the boys mercilessly in school, they remember him quite differently. In a profane, hilarious exclamation, Lawson declares he always thought he’d want to give his former schoolmaster a right good kicking, but with a heroic dose of Ecstasy kicking in, he just wants to hug the old man. Drugs also figure prominently in “The State of the Party,” which combines Welsh’s gift for depicting the ravages of heroin use with gleefully black humor as two baked junkies play an Edinburgh-flavored version of Weekend at Bernie’s with their late comrade. Another recurring cast member, psychotic Francis Begbie from Trainspotting, narrates the blasphemous “Elspeth’s Boyfriend,” during which Franco can’t resist ruining Christmas by assaulting the titular offender. Another standout is the notorious “Catholic Guilt (You Know You Love It),” an uncomfortable parable about a homophobic street thug who gets his just desserts. For something completely different, there’s “The Rosewell Incident,” a rare venture into science fiction during which aliens who adopt an Edinburgh brogue have trouble getting their point across.
The stories are dated, true, but even Welsh’s leftovers still have enough whiplash to leave a mark.