Irvine Welsh was born in 1951, 1958, or 1961; the biography on his official website doesn’t give a date, instead mentioning Welsh’s “selective memory at key points.” Coyness isn’t a quality often associated with Welsh, who once wrote a novel about pornography called Porno, yet it’s true that key points of his life story are iffy. Trainspotting is one of the great junkie books; but what did its author know of being a junkie? There were those who wondered if Welsh’s subject matter implied a more colorful past than he possessed. In a 1996 article called “Would the real Irvine Welsh shoot up?” the Guardian referenced Welsh’s baldness and “dumpy, featureless” looks. Perhaps he lacked the bone structure to be authentic. Either Welsh did a lot of heroin or just a little, or maybe he merely hung out in squats where junkies got high, and it’s even possible that he was pretty uncool, the sort of pub bore who yells at televisions. In any case, it was a phase. No one doubts that there were at least a few years when Welsh was bombed much of the time.
Welsh grew up poor in a housing scheme on the margins of Edinburgh; in American terms, he came out of the projects. Scotland itself might be conceived of as a marginal project of the British Empire, and Welsh’s feeling that he is the accursed wallflower of world history (“fuckin failures in a country ay failures…The most wretched, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation”) can occasionally come through in his fiction. After renouncing his intended career as a television repairman (he was electrocuted), Welsh went to London in 1979. He lived on dole checks and discovered punk. There was a band called Pubic Lice in which he played guitar. “[I] failed at everything,” he has said of this period. The Road to Damascus moment came in the mid-eighties, when Welsh was arrested for vandalism and decided to end his flirtation with misrule. He became an office clerk. Then he became, or claims to have become (there are skeptics), a realtor in Tory London. This was definitely uncool and not a little cynical; some will recall Mark Renton’s closing soliloquy in Danny Boyle’s 1997 adaptation of Trainspotting—though nothing like it appeared at the end of the novel (Boyle could be selective at key points, too): “The truth is that I’m a bad person. But that’s going to change. I’m going to change.…Now I’m cleaning up and moving on, going straight and choosing life.”
Boyle’s Renton goes on to itemize the joys of having things like an “indexed pension.” Welsh went on to work for the housing department in Edinburgh that had planned the “scheme,” or council housing project, that he grew up on, a fate whose ironies may have precluded much joy. Its realities were certainly at odds with pleasure. Edinburgh had become Europe’s “capital of AIDS.” Welsh spent his days engulfed by the logistics of being poor and fucked-up and possibly sick to death; as he tells it, much of the squalor of what he later wrote was more or less transcribed from his work experience during this period. It wasn’t until he earned an MBA and rose a pay grade, though, that Welsh grew “bored” enough to sit down and write.
The question of the words themselves is tricky for Welsh, who is as likely to produce a flawed sentence as a fine one. His best effects are comic, and rely on sharp turns and a blasphemous finish: “Far be it fae me tae simplistically vilify an entire occupation, but all social workers are fucking cunts.” That’s about as complex as Welsh’s syntax gets. He likes to write in the present tense, and to sort striking from less striking details on the page; you run into a lot of unabridged meal-breakdowns, sets of walking directions, and playlists. Too much information, for better and worse, is his style. Sometimes writing without the usual filters enables unusual perceptions. Welsh can be brutishly aphoristic (“The rhetorical question, the stock-in-trade weapon ay burds and psychos”), and his use of dialect is surprisingly easy to adjust to. He is vulgar in a way that suggests that any novelist who was less vulgar would be lying. Sometimes he’s so vulgar that he makes himself nervous. There is an adolescent quality to these moments. When the hero of Trainspotting has sex with a pregnant woman, he worries about “stickin it in the foetus’s mouth.”
Still, a devotion to smut and nonstandard spelling is (as with adolescence) no guarantee against sentimentality. “How well can anybody really know anybody else?” a character in Trainspotting wonders at a funeral. Thrillingly gauche at its best, Welsh’s writing gets more mannered when it falls off. The bad bits are as often hackneyed as crude: “the frozen wind blasting cruelly from the North sea,” “After what seemed like a lifetime.” Starting out, Welsh was clear-eyed about his amateurishness and made a quick success in spite of it. In the early 90s, his short stories began appearing in Scottish little magazines, including one in West Coast—a defunct Glaswegian triannual—that depicted junkies torpidly chitchatting while a baby lies dead in an adjoining room. A version of this story reappeared in Trainspotting, which was published in 1993. Welsh and his editor, the poet Robin Robertson, were sufficiently unconfident of the novel’s chances to plot a phony letter campaign to suppress it for obscenity. The idea was to get the bourgeois to at least notice Welsh’s épater, but in the end Trainspotting didn’t need a ruse to become the year’s controversial bestseller.
People not notable for reading literary fiction, or for reading at all, bought Trainspotting, but it also received nominations for the Booker and Whitbread prizes and was buoyed by admiration in high places. Jenny Turner, in the London Review of Books, called it “a mind-opener.” There was much high-octane blurb-work. “The best book ever written by man or woman,” said Rebel, Inc. “It deserves to sell more copies than the Bible.” And indeed, with its episodic structure, inventive punctuation and story of a band of misfits undone by betrayal, Trainspotting did have its Biblical aspects, though in this instance Judas was the hero.
Trainspotting revolves around an underclass peer-group experimenting with heroin during the AIDS epidemic in ‘80s Edinburgh. Its cast has the faintly contrived diversity of a TV sitcom: There’s a playboy, a jock, a loser, a bully, and a mostly incoherent alcoholic called Second Prize (because he always loses the fights he picks), plus the ironic and ambivalent hero, Mark Renton. Nearly everyone has a nickname spawned from a shaming personal anecdote and a speech tic played up for laughs. The exception is Tommy (the jock), who just goes by Tommy; he’s “a fairly handsome cunt wi a tan” who’s the last of the friends to try heroin and soon after dies of AIDS. The book’s not so much plotted as harmonized, a series of monologues that add up to a mood, all composed in a key of mocking disaffection. (“Thir must be less tae life than this.”) Still, it ends dramatically, with “Rent Boy” double-crossing the gang and absconding with a lot of drug money to Amsterdam.
The protagonists are young and their dissipation is appealing as well as sad. Yet Trainspotting is less notable for depictions of drug use than what happens to the bodies of the poor. I’ve never read a novel denser with descriptions of bad hygiene: not just the addict’s track marks and crenellated teeth but the less specialized unsanitariness of pimples, sweats, scurvy underwear, flowing toenails, the “helmet cheese” of uncircumcised penises. As befits this locker-room grotesquerie, Trainspotting is a book much preoccupied with male friendship, specifically how it destroys everything. “He really is a cunt ay the first order,” as Welsh has one character think. ‘“The problem is, he’s a mate n aw. Whit kin ye dae?” When I came across Welsh’s claim in an autobiographical article that Evelyn Waugh (“a toff”) was the first writer to inspire him to try, my first thought was that it must be a misprint. Yet Welsh is Waugh-like in the impression he gives of believing that friendship is just a subset of enmity; he is especially Waugh-like in his ability to write deftly about friendship all the same. He also shares Waugh’s relish for persiflage, if not his style of rendering it (“Fuck off, ya plukey-faced wee hing oot”).
The result was a book that was astute about the sociology of bad behavior. Welsh has never forgotten that drug abuse can be funny as well as tragic, but when he wrote his first novel he still knew that the lifestyles involved could get boring. The voice of Mark Renton, the keynote of the chorus Welsh switches among, is deadpan with a telling catch in it; you can’t be sure if it’s world-weary or just weary of itself. Rent Boy is a junkie’s junkie; he likes heroin because it “strips away delusions”; he scorns cocaine as “yuppie shite.” But he is also a nonconformist’s nonconformist, allergic to groupthink even in a milieu as unconventional as his own. The question Welsh uses him to pose, or dramatize, is whether nonconforming with nonconformists inevitably leads to selling out. Rent Boy’s personal crisis is patterned after that of punk’s twilight; it is a microcosm of the self-devouring tendency of every counterculture. What happens when negativity turns on itself? Twenty years later, Trainspotting still succeeds as an outrage to middle-class proprieties, yet dead babies and needle-sharing aren’t the only troubling aspects of a coming-of-age-story that defined maturity as the courage to be a dick to your friends. Mark Renton is likeable precisely because he is so plausibly nasty, and by the end the reader is pleased that he has duped his so-called “best mates.” We are left with a parable about the virtues of selfishness, or the fallacies inherent in being loyal, or maybe just the futility of life outside the mainstream.
After Trainspotting, Welsh discovered rave culture, notoriously giving an interview while high on ecstasy to a magazine called Rebel, Inc. But it’s not easy to stay shocking. It’s also not easy to be both a hero of hard living and a late-blooming author of literary fiction. The phenomenology of self-destruction is a subject generally left to young people, like Rimbaud or Jay McInerney, who can destroy themselves and then grow up to do other things, like trade slaves or write a wine column. When Trainspotting came out, however, Welsh may have been as old as 42. Malcolm Lowry published his great book on a comparable theme (alcoholism) at a comparable age (38). But success didn’t agree with him (from Lowry’s poem “After publication of Under the Volcano”: “Success is like some horrible disaster/Worse than your house burning”), and at 47 he was dead.
Welsh didn’t die. He didn’t even stab his wife or do jail time. Instead, he remarried and acquired property in Miami Beach. As his act became more familiar—or perhaps, as his fiction came to resemble an act—Welsh’s reputation as a truth-teller suffered. A penchant for unsubtle titles (Filth, Crime, Porno) didn’t help him, though Welsh was never one to mislead critics about his priorities: It’s well-known that he curtailed editing on the manuscript of his novella collection Ecstasy so as to synchronize its release with that of the Trainspotting movie. He also appeared in the movie: Boyle cast him as “Mikey Forrester,” an “evil-looking bastard” who is the only character in Trainspotting to live in the same housing scheme, Muirhouse, that Welsh came from. Forrester sells an opium suppository to Rent Boy, who then makes him the subject of a famous retort: “For aw the good they’ve done ah might as well huv stuck thum up ma erse.” In the film, Ewan McGregor and Welsh maintain eye contact while McGregor’s hand inserts the suppository.
Welsh still got good reviews in prestigious places, but the praise turned on flourishes rather than analysis: it’s always going to be fun for a reviewer of literary fiction to write about a guy who expresses wistfulness with the phrase “cunty baws.” Even the well-disposed, like the American academic Robert Morace, patronized him with observations like “Irvine Welsh is not a writer in the sense that, say, Martin Amis is. Rather, Welsh is a cultural phenomenon of sociological as well as aesthetic significance.”
In 2002, Welsh wrote Porno, a sequel to Trainspotting. The cast of the original, swollen by additions from Welsh’s 2001 novel Glue (the title refers to fraternal bonds, not drug abuse), reunites to make an amateur porn film. A lot of lying, bacchanalia and filmed sex ensues, culminating in a group trip to the annual porn awards at Cannes. Then they disperse after another of Rent Boy’s double-crosses. Drugs seem to affect literary characters in more predictable ways than they affect human beings: Heroin etherealizes, LSD spiritualizes, MDMA romanticizes. Porno, however, is a cocaine novel. Sick Boy, the playboy of the original, has morphed under its effects into a megalomaniac with main character–status and a “Steven Segal”–like ponytail. His all-consuming purpose is vengeance on Rent Boy, who has gone straight: chucked heroin, taken up judo and opened a dance club in “the Dam.” Eventually, Rent Boy outwits Sick Boy and falls in love with the grad student Dianne, formerly the schoolgirl he statutorily raped in Trainspotting. This was disturbing to the authenticity police, who suspected that Welsh had been tippling too much Danny Boyle. (In the Trainspotting movie, Dianne is promoted from a one-night stand to Rent Boy’s love interest.) Porno had funny lines (“the only kind of fuck he ever gets, one of the head variety”) and the drawbacks of being nice were forcibly recapitulated (“Some people fuck up your masterplan. Usually it’s friends and lovers”). Still, the story was told inefficiently and Welsh’s heroes seemed shallower the second time round.
Welsh once compared Trainspotting to a “bad curry after a few pints of lager. It keeps coming up.” Now Welsh has written Skagboys, a prequel—a regurgitation of less certain terms. All the old characters are back. It’s the view Welsh takes of them that’s changed. There has been a shift from the active to the passive, from the existential to the statistical. His characters used to pride themselves on the inexplicability of their attraction to sin. “Ah choose no tae choose life,” as Rent Boy famously put it in Trainspotting. The power of this statement stems from its unappeasability: Rent Boy, in every sense, doesn’t want anything. But in the prequel Welsh is determined to demystify this gesture of recalcitrance. The novel opens with a university-attending Mark Renton and his father scuffling with the police over a union strike in Yorkshire. “The politicos at the uni would be jealous as fuck that ah wis oan one ay the official National Union ay Mineworkers’ buses!” Renton thinks.
Skagboys is set during the recession of 1980, and its early chapters contain a montage of class-conscious hardships: layoffs, boarded-up buildings, medical costs and absentee fathers, all the cutbacks and overheads that excruciate the lives of the poor. Welsh even splices the narrative with mock news bulletins of the woes of life under Thatcher, though the effect is less than documentary. Spud (the loser of the group) gets fired and misses the
excitement ah used tae feel when ah goat up fir work oan a good mornin at the furniture deliveries…Now thaire’s nowt like that, nae work fir the unskilled man like me….wi aw need that; wi aw need something tae dae n a tale tae tell.
Such an op-ed-ready vision of the inner life can make it difficult to find much meaning in the politics of Skagboys. Welsh is pro-labor, pro-people, pro-choice; anti-Thatcher, anti-villainy, anti-injustice. Like Spud, he soon turns to other sources of excitement, and as the novel proceeds its sociopolitical scaffolding falls away.
Whereas Trainspotting began in media res with the gang already addicted, Skagboys begins in a healthy frame of their lives and then introduces them to heroin. The fall-from-grace setup requires Welsh to do about 150 pages of grace, which, it turns out, he can’t do very well: “Ah’m suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that it feels great tae be me,” Rent Boy thinks; “a young, smart, working-class boy fae these beautiful islands. How blessed could a human being possibly be?” He recalls life at Aberdeen University, where he begins the novel enrolled: “Sitting in the brightly lit library, surrounded by books, in total silence, that was ma personal zenith.” Though Rent Boy has always been a clever hero, there’s little in Trainspotting or Porno from which to infer back this ardent bookishness; its function in the prequel seems to be the narrow one of letting Welsh have his say about books. He doesn’t hold back, dismissing criticism altogether (“Analysing novels meant ripping oot their soul”) and taking a swipe at J.M. Coetzee, whom he supposes people only read because he “won some poxy prize.”
Still, Rent Boy’s not such a nerd that he won’t take speed on weekends. Like all Welsh’s stand-in heroes, he’s an attractively fucked-up smart guy. As well as Fitzgerald and Joyce, he likes “peeve,” punk, Joy Division, Premier Division, and LSD. He even wins a lunchtime contest for fecal shapeliness among his coworkers on a blue-collar summer job. He sums up his love life as “a series ay bitter, sly and exceptionally swift copulations in stairs, family bedrooms or under grubby duvets.” (Such lines are the reason to read Welsh.) This pattern lasts until Rent Boy gets a girlfriend on a train trip to Istanbul: Fiona, a good student who calls him “Mark” and sends his “heart…in[to] a perpetual, turbulent riot.” Welsh writes decently about sex, where his candor about fluids more or less assures an entertaining result, but love embarrasses him into preciosity. Few readers will regret Fiona’s departure when Rent Boy jilts her to get serious about drugs.
Some junkies are born into it, some achieve it, some have it thrust upon them. Rent Boy is the self-made type—the Horatio Alger of heroin. That’s basically how he puts it to Fiona, anyway, in a histrionic scene in a hotel barroom. (“You…you’re packin me in, cause you wanna spend more time doin fuckin heroin?”) Rent Boy tried the drug for the first time just before that trip to Istanbul. This is how Welsh describes it:
Ah smile at Johnny. Just as the thought forms: is that aw there is tae it? ah get a sudden rush and a glow, then ma insides, body and brain, are like a fruit pastille, melting in a huge mooth. Suddenly everything that was burning in ma heid, every fear and doubt, just dissolves, ah can just feel them receding intae the distance.
Then Welsh writes “Aye” six times in increasingly large fonts. It’s typical of Welsh to describe being high on heroin in analgesic terms, as a suspension of suffering rather than an access of bliss. This might be because evoking heroin’s pleasures poses a technical challenge he isn’t up to, or because he doesn’t believe that pleasure is what heroin’s about. It might even be that Welsh, like “that Schopenhauer gadgie,” whom he playfully references a few times, is skeptical of pleasure in a radical way, that he thinks it’s just a breather from the horribleness of existing. By around page 200 there’s “a permanent swamp ay fire and scum around [Rent Boy’s] wedding tackle, erse and airmpits” and Welsh is back in the atmosphere that made him famous.
The rest of Skagboys charts the peer group’s decline “towards the totally fucked”—i.e., where Trainspotting began. As always in Welsh’s fiction, there’s a fair bit of off-color brilliance (“sweatin’ lke a blind dyke in a fish-monger’s”), a dozen or so set pieces of team debauchery that are impossible not take pleasure in, and some terrible prose: “her thin, white shoulder the barest he’s ever seen, as if they would only ever need the night as a shawl.” There’s also, as usual, a lot of talk about “the courage tae be cruel,” of “finding the cuntishness ye need.”
Few novelists have monopolized a verbal possibility the way Welsh has “cunt” and its permutations. Writing “cunt” used to get novelists sued, but for Welsh it is metronomic, the rhythm-giving pulse of his style. In Skagboys, he uses the word “cunt” 81 times, “cunts” 70 times and variations thereupon innumerably. Its modulations are also innumerable: Cunt is said in anger, in joy, in puzzlement, in pain, in sex, at sea, with syringes dangling from arms and teeth from their gums. In Porno, Sick Boy quotes a Nick Cave lyric that quotes a philosopher. The woman he’s talking to recognizes the provenance of the line: “I thought she called me a cunt,” Sick Boy later says. “I didn’t realize that she was referring to Kant.” Mostly, cunt means “gadge,” which is to say guy—to be exact, the kind of guy whom other guys can call “cunt” comfortably. Welsh isn’t a strikingly philosophical writer, but he might be the Kant of cuntishness. His profoundest literary creation, certainly, is an all-guys affair. Maybe it’s an all-boys affair: the relationship between Sick Boy and Rent Boy, a septic cocktail of loathing and envy additionally envenomed by drugs and crime.
Skagboys is most interesting as a comparative study of these characters—two cunts with different codes. As well as dumping a girl who loves him, Rent Boy squanders his place at university; pushes heroin on others; steals donations to an animal shelter; embarks on a sexual relationship with an imprisoned man’s wife; and persuades his friends to join him in an unfeasible crime that results in one getting arrested. The worst thing he does according to his own moral math is to cheat on Fiona with her good friend Joanne. That he has anal sex with Joanne seems to enlarge this banal lapse into something tragic for Welsh, who has always had a Mailer-esque esteem for sodomy. Sick Boy, on the other hand, abandons an old man to be beaten to death by a bartender; betrays his widow, whom he’s slept with, to the police for tax evasion; addicts their daughter to heroin, then sexually enslaves her with its aid; and impregnates and forsakes a devout Italian teenager.
Near the end, they both end up in court-ordered rehab. Sick Boy recalls a conversation with a councilor:
At my first session he told me he wanted candor. So I told him that I wanted tae fuck just about every woman I met. Not only that, but I wanted to make them fucking well beg for it. He said I was exploitative and sexually dysfunctional. I told him, ‘No mate, it’s called male sexuality. The rest is just denial.’
Welsh seems to find this simultaneously funny, repulsive, and true, all attributes to which his prose has always aspired. If Sick Boy, unlike Rent Boy, is wicked, it’s not that Rent Boy’s any better disposed toward women. (He’s merely worse looking, and has a harder time being bad to them.) It’s that he taps into the redemptive power of self-expression. The prequel takes on shades of a behind-the-scenes look at the original as the rehab chapters deepen. Bored of “Joyce and jerking,” Rent Boy starts keeping a diary. He discovers his voice and likes the sound of it: “That is more like I sound in my head heid. Sometimes. Mair like. Sometimes. Why try tae sound different? Why the fuck be the same as every other cunt?” Rent Boy is a cunt who learns how to write cunt, whereas Sick Boy, tellingly, likes to consult his “trusty Collins dictionary” in search of doozy phraseology to lure in “burds.”
The moral? Express yourselves, cunts. Get in touch with your inner gadge. “I’ve come to believe that everything you write,” Rent Boy writes, “no matter how shite and trivial, has some sort of meaning.” Yoking a call for literary blasphemy to a slogan of political correctness is a contradiction increasingly typical of Welsh’s career. Back in 1993, it looked like he might become the Henry Green of Edinburgh, a clever pagan laying siege to the novel with slang. Instead, he became something less threatening. He found a way to be obscene and consoling at the same time. Welsh wrote a great book about escaping the punk scene, but somewhere along the way he lost interest in larger ironies and became a writer of punk escapism. The world of his later fiction is as ageless and artificial as P.G. Wodehouse’s—an unfading rude land of benders and male bonding, where the dick jokes will never stale and anal sex is a mystical experience, where everyone’s a cunt with a scam. “It wis like auld times,” as Rent Boy thinks near the end of Trainspotting, “but in a sense, that only served tae remind us ay how much things hud changed.” So it is with this overweight novel, wishfully immature like a high-school reunion; Welsh came home without moving forward. Is Skagboys what it looks like for a novelist to regress? Perhaps, though I still wouldn’t mind if it outsold the Bible.