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.