• Irvine Welsh
  • W.W. Norton
  • 532 pp.

Drawing on the wildly successful Trainspotting, this novel offers a prequel showing how the miscreants living on the dole in Scotland first went wrong.

Reviewed by Alexander Dwinell

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was one of those books that shouldn’t have succeeded but did, somehow inserting itself into society’s jugular and then exploding. Published in 1993 with an initial print run of just 3,000 copies, Trainspotting went on to become a best-selling novel, a successful play and an even more successful film — pretty impressive for a story about heroin and the lives of the Scottish lumpenproletariat. And when you consider that it was written primarily in a dense Scottish dialect that captured the sound and slang of the scheme, its success was truly amazing.

I was working in a bookstore in London when Trainspotting was published, its cover emblazoned with “the best book ever written by man or woman …  deserves to sell more copies than the Bible.” There were readers who didn’t think these were overstatements. Welsh’s recent works have garnered more traditional praise — his new novel, Skagboys, comes with endorsements from Nick Hornsby — and have failed to draw similar fanatics. In this context, I approached Skagboys with trepidation. The publishers bill it as a prequel to Trainspotting that “shows how Welsh’s colorful miscreants first went wrong.” I wondered if Skagboys signaled a return to form, or a sign that Welsh had nothing left to say.

Skagboys drops us into the lives of a group of friends living on and off the dole and in and out of the council flats in Leith, Scotland. Reading Trainspotting is not a prerequisite for understanding Skagboys, but its primary characters — Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie — will be familiar to readers of Welsh’s earlier work. Skagboys also introduces secondary and female characters who get to tell their own story. But Welsh’s prequel is still definitely a novel about (skag)boys.

Welsh asks a lot of his readers. He gives each of his main characters three or four names and shifts perspective from chapter to chapter, often leaving it to tone and context to reveal the characters’ identities in a given scene. And then there is Welsh’s trademark writing style, filled with slang and phonetic spellings that demand to be sounded out to be understood: “ ‘That snidey wee cunt Connell, that’s who. Ah ken Matty’s your mate, Mark, auld Fort loyalties n that, but he’s eywis hoverin around askin aw sotrs ay questions, like wantin tae ken where ah git ma gear fae, n aw that shite.’ ”

The novel opens in the early 1980s as Margaret Thatcher is crushing the mineworkers’ union. From scatologic games at work to the twin ravages of Dutch elm disease and AIDS; from working on the channel ferry as a front for drug smuggling to class climbing in London; from pimping for drug money to going through rehab to stay out of jail, Welsh may paint a bleak picture of life, but he uses comic brushstrokes. He allows the story to move like a junkie drifting from one fix to the next, and uses strong characters rather than plot to hold the book together.

Renton’s narrative provides the backbone of the storyline. He is the first to try heroin, which soon becomes a major motivator in the lives of the lads. He’s the one who has the chance to “escape” via university — he shoots down that opportunity (and a perfect girlfriend). Most changes of setting are introduced through Renton; for example, we see rehab primarily through his eyes. Renton is the one most likely to arouse the reader’s sympathy, especially because of his relationship to his dying younger brother — not that sympathy is something Welsh is trying to court on the part of any of his characters. It’s all cool, we just need to get to the next fix.

But as the novel progresses, Welsh neither maintains his Bataille-like cold distance nor, ultimately, is he able to condemn his characters — they are his mates and must be supported no matter how horribly they act. And although some of Welsh’s characters do some truly horrible things in the course of this novel — and I don’t mean use heroin — for some reason, you are left with the impression that Welsh feels these characters are still cool.

It’s not only the characters’ moral ambivalence but also Welsh’s own that permeates the novel and weakens its impact. And while it is nice to be immersed in the Trainspotting world again, to go on a few more dodgy adventures, I was left with the indifferent feeling that Skagboys didn’t break new ground. I’m happy to have read the novel, and it’s a relief that Welsh didn’t create some crazy backstory to “explain” heroin addiction. Skagboys is not a triumphant return, and those who don’t come to it through Trainspotting may be left wondering what all the fuss was about.

Alexander Dwinell, a Brooklyn-based editor and designer, was part of the South End Press collective. He has also managed bookstores in the United States and the United Kingdom, toured in a punk band and occupied Wall Street. He rides his bike nearly every day.

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