Reading Irvine Welsh in the last ten years has been similar to following the career of Bob Dylan in the mid 80s-90s. I kept buying Bob’s albums during that time in the hope that he would repay the faith that I, and others, had; faith which was rewarded in style with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, but we had to put up with a lot of out of tune dross and ill advised make-up to get there. With Welsh it has been even more difficult to keep the faith as he seemed to be increasingly focusing on the excessive side of his writing rather than creating believable and recognisable characters. We may have wanted to cross the street from them on a dark night, but they were the reason we fell in love with his work in the first place. Latterly he seemed to be concerned with pushing his readership in his novels, daring them not to look away; the literary versions of SAW sequels. His last two, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs and Crime, read like parodies of Irvine Welsh, and the thought persisted as to whether he would ever reach the heights of his early work again.
For these reasons I was worried about his latest novel Skagboys, especially when I saw the size of it. Now he wasn’t only demanding commitment but also stamina. It is a prequel to the game-changing Trainspotting focusing on the same characters and attempting to explain how they first bonded together. I finished it a few days ago but I haven’t written about it until now to make sure I was giving it proper perspective. The short version of this review is that Skagboys is not just Welsh’s best novel since Filth, it may just be the best he has ever written (and I’m fully aware of what that means).
Now the long version. It was a gamble to return to the characters of Trainspotting as the 2002 sequel Porno wasn’t an unequivocal success. This was because by Porno they had become increasingly disparate and divorced, and they only really make sense when relating directly to one another. But in Skagboys Welsh gives them greater depth, or in the case of Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson, greater shallows. We discover how close Mark Renton was to having a very different life, are shown a rarely seen, and soon to be banished for good, sentimental side to Franco Begbie, learn how Tommy Laurence manages to find redemption just in time with Lizzie and are reassured that Danny ‘Spud’ Murphy was always happy just to belong. It is also confirmed that Sick Boy really is a man with no redemptive features but with a bagful of charisma; a literally lethal cocktail.
Welsh takes us back to the early-mid 1980s with all that it entails, but most significantly there is raging unemployment and the increasing availability of cheap heroin. Boredom and the desire to get lost leads the majority of the cast to the doors of Edinburgh’s ever increasing number of heroin dealers, an enterprise scheme that was Thatcherism in a nutshell. The rate of everyone’s descent into addiction would be unbelievable if it wasn’t absolutely and sadly true. This is a place and time when the idea of being a functioning addict is unthinkable. Once started it was usually a case of more, more, more until someone, or more likely something, managed to stop you. As in any battle, and addiction is always a battle in one way or another, there were those who didn’t make it, a point Welsh makes abundantly clear.
There are problems with the book. I don’t mind writers playing with font and design when it has a purpose, for example with the tapeworm sections in Filth, but having the diary sections in a ‘handwritten’ font is style for the sake of it and actually took away from what were two of the most interesting and insightful sections of the book. Those sections work because it is when he writes in the first person that Welsh really succeeds. When the narrative returns to third person it is all too easy to skim, waiting for the next internal dialogue to begin. We want to know what is going on in these people’s heads as this is where we discover their truth and their humanity.
Welsh once more makes the Leith dialogue sing, as interesting and rich in places as anyone writing today. Where the dialogue stalls is when he moves outside of Edinburgh’s postal districts. The Cockney of Nicksy just doesn’t work, and no amount of writing ‘Farkin’ is going to change that. In the case of the Geordie of Fiona and the various Weegie characters he doesn’t get the patter right either (maybe that’s the point, making those who are outwith Leith less eloquent and sharp as those lucky enough to reside there). The other recurring complaint that follows Welsh is the sidelining of his female characters, and although the story surrounding Alison begins promisingly, it gets overlooked as the book progresses as it is the ‘Skagboys’ themselves whose lives are fixated upon.
But that is not a problem this time as what readers are concerned about is the life of Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie, Tommy and Spud, perhaps not purely for literary reasons, something Welsh seems to tacitly admit. These are the characters who Welsh has yet to better, the ones he understands the best, and as a result are the most believable and complex. There are plenty of other characters old and new, with special mention to Keezbo, Swanney, Matty, Nicksy and Charlene, but it always comes back to those five to a greater or lesser degree. Reading Skagboys with Trainspotting in mind it becomes clear how those central five are all part of one individual; all are required to maintain balance.
There is the intellectual and questioning mind of Renton, which can be turned to good or bad, the overwhelming and destructive desires of Sick Boy, which override any dormant compassion or consciousness, and the unrestrained violence of Franco Begbie, taking joy in a different type of excess and believing that only the strongest survive. Tommy typifies the idea that belonging to a tribe, for better of worse, is a vital part of being, and Spud is the humanity of the group. This leaves him exposed because he believes he needs the protection of the group to survive. The reason most of the others pity or patronise Spud is because they see his compassion as a weakness, and they don’t want to be reminded of human weakness.
They are inextricably linked despite themselves. Begbie tolerates Renton’s smart mouth as he sees him as proof that someone can escape the life the others seem destined for. Renton and Sick Boy keep Begbie close as they believe that it is mildly safer than having him against them. Tommy feels he has to belong, and Spud feels just glad that someone lets him belong. No relationship typifies the contrary nature of this gang more than that between Renton and Sick Boy. Neither trust, or even like, the other but both are envious. Renton has the education and intellect that Sick Boy desires, even if only to impress, and Renton sees the confidence with which Sick Boy carries himself and desires to be so bold. Together, as seen in the scenes in London, they make a petty and perverse whole. That’s the point. They all need each other as they all are part of one, even if they hate that fact with every fibre of their being. Why else would they continue these destructive relationships. In fact being in each others company reminds them not of who they are, but what they are not, and that can be a comfort or an irritant depending on what they choose to focus.
It’s apt that the cover of Skagboys is a skeleton as this is humanity stripped as bare as you can imagine. Many people dismiss Welsh as a sensationalist. Even those who like his work see him as someone who is mostly concerned with giving a voice to those who are rarely represented on the page. There are aspects of both of these, but when he is at his best he examines human nature with a keen insight, asking why people act in the way they do. It is not simple posturing that Renton name checks Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in Skagboys and Trainspotting. Welsh is asking fundamental existential questions, one of which is ‘if there is free will what stops us all from acting purely for self gratifictaion?’. Or perhaps we do? It is this aspect of his writing, these questions he asks, that is the reason I have, and always will, read everything Irvine Welsh writes. Strip away the junk, jizz and Jambo bashing and these are characters who would not be out of place in the novels of Camus, Sartre and Trocchi. Even Welsh’s failures are more interesting than many others’ successes and this is what makes him one of the most important writers around.