'Skagboys': The tattered tartan of Irvine Welsh's Scotland
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There are specters haunting the best of Irvine Welsh's picaresque novels of heroin-addicted, football-hooligan Scottish rogues, forces just out of sight that push and squeeze the characters, and against which these junkie Tom Joneses and Moll Flanders motionlessly kick and silently scream.
By Irvine Welsh
W.W. Norton ($26.95).
When the author's decade-defining debut, "Trainspotting," crashed onto bookstore shelves in 1993, the ghost was hidden in plain sight. While most saw drugs as its central antagonist, the true subject of Mr. Welsh's style was the language: Written phonetically in dialect, and with a density of slang that required a glossary for even some Scottish readers, his characters slammed their bodies against their native tongue like a prison wall.
Mr. Welsh's best books continued to map this cretinous cartography of urban Scotland. If he was a junkie Faulkner in "Trainspotting," then later works might have made him a rave Flann O'Brien ("Maribou Stork Nightmares"), or Edinburgh's Philip Roth ("Porno"). But in between there were always failures -- moments when his powers waned and that razor-sharp sense of humor turned to self indulgence, his visionary linguistic rebelliousness to a parodic saleable experimentalism. And in those moments, his unseen ghostly forces -- the invisible hand of the black market -- became pitifully obvious.
Which is why "Skagboys" comes as a welcome anniversary present. Nearly 20 years after "Trainspotting," and a decade after the sequel/romp "Porno," the voice of the chemical generation revisits his oeuvre-defining characters in this prequel. The specter haunting "Skagboys" is history -- in both the grand sense of Margaret Thatcher's Britain, and in the literary sense, as the reader must know from previous work the fates that befall each voice.
Even though Mr. Welsh strays, at times, dangerously close to forcing his points, most of "Skagboys" treats these subjects with that graceful and subtle, yet oh-so-brutal, touch we know the author capable of. And coming at a time when a conservative British government is similarly looking to an almost fetishized austerity of the poor to solve a problem of the rich, Mr. Welsh's book shows us the existential crisis that hides in a culture willing to punish the downtrodden.
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Potential readers be warned: Irvine Welsh's penchant for dialect, multiple individual first-person voices, and innuendo are both his strongest and most addictive literary powers -- and simultaneously a constant slog.
If one isn't from Scotland -- no, let's be clear: if one didn't grow up in the rougher parts of the Leith suburb of Edinburgh during the mid-1980s and early-1990s -- one simply will have difficulty reading "Skagboys." But once through the language barrier, Mr. Welsh's characters shine in a darkly hilarious and superlatively violent way. Mark Renton, the junkie antihero; Sickboy, the morally bereft ladies' man; Spud, the tribe's "omega" and lovable stooge; Begbie, the terrifying strongman hooligan, and a host of others.
In "Skagboys," we find these characters at their just-out-of-school worst. It's the mid-'80s and the beginning of Edinburgh's heroin boom ("the AIDS capital of Europe"). It's also the height of Prime Minister Thatcher's calculated program to sell off the welfare state. "Skagboys" begins at the literal turning point of that history: during the national coal miner's strike, a young Mark Renton, in alliance with his father's union, pickets a key site and is beaten by police officers in the ensuing melee. Historically, it was the beginning of the end for the strike and for British trade unions. For Renton, it confirms his alienation.
Through each character's unique voice, Mr. Welsh describes a landscape in which small conspiracies of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, rigid class system and a culture nearly as bankrupt morally as financially spawn a generation of no-hopers who, as "Trainspotting" famously said, "choose not to choose life." Such as the girl whose father is murdered and mother imprisoned for welfare fraud, whom Sickboy pimps out for junk. Or "Franco" Begbie, whose macho soccer-thug lifestyle leads him to savagely beat a family for daring to demand he own up to their daughter's pregnancy.
As always, the most poignantly ambiguous tale is Mark Renton's, a demise from boyfriend and budding college intellectual to common junkie. Mr. Welsh puts this existential crisis down, at various times, to the emasculation of his father's generation (and all of Leith) through unemployment; to the death of Renton's severely retarded brother, with whom he had a typically bizarre relationship, and the violent sectarian politicization of his other brother; to the futureless anti-society that surrounds him.
Yet the truth of Renton's fall is that the specter of his dark future was always within him. It's a future loosed when the society that puts his best features forward, through his relationships with women and family, is dissolved before his eyes. In 1987, Mrs. Thatcher declared that "there is no such thing as society." Hers was a Wild West style adherence to self-reliance -- "people must look to themselves first" -- that any junkie would recognize.
To Renton, the collapsing world that surrounds him provides a philosophical crisis of the will: Why, he seems to ask, do or not do anything at all? It's a question Mr. Welsh asks of this 1980s historical moment, and of today's Britain. And at least in the former case, his troubled lead has a haunting non-answer.
"Schopenhauer was right," Renton says at his developmentally disabled younger brother's funeral, "life has tae be aboot disillusionment; stumbling inexorably towards the totally [screwed]."
First Published January 6, 2013 12:00 am