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.