Red meat for Welsh cultists, but a heavy load for anybody else.


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.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-08873-1

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2012

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While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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