December 2007

Shaun Manning

fiction

If You Liked School, You'll Love Work by Irvine Welsh

The title of Irvine Welsh's latest short story collection, If You Liked School, You'll Love Work, suggests something about the tone of the pieces and the characters we're about to meet. It might suggest that Welsh's heroes will be tragically distant hipsters, or that the world they inhabit is hopeless (but isn't it a laugh!). From the point of view of many of the protagonists, all of this is true; but what is interesting is that Welsh manages to bring the reader into these characters' headspace without asking us to be sympathetic towards them. In the end, we can't wait for these self-righteous bastards to be brought low -- except, or perhaps especially, when they resemble ourselves.

School/Work opens on a tale called “Rattlesnakes,” which begins as the story of a journey home from Burning Man and turns into quite something else. Eugene, Scott, and Madeline are happily indulging in their requisite On the Road experience, when Scott's ancient Dodge breaks down and things go south. First, Eugene is bitten in the groin by a rattlesnake; then, two brothers fleeing from an escalating series of crimes stumble across the stranded trio, and Alejandro decides he needs to teach younger sibling Noe what it means to be a man. It's not hard to see where this is going, but then it gets much, much worse.

The title story finds an English ex-pat making his home in the Canary Islands, seeking a balance between getting in with every fit woman in sight and finding ways to extricate himself when romance goes wrong. Michael Baker is defined by the women in his life, particularly his ex-wife and daughter. He imagines himself a clever guy just trying to make his way in the world, persecuted by an evil harpy's machinations to burden him with unwanted and unjust obligations. When the ex preempts negotiation and sends Emily off to see her father, Michael will have to abandon his own schemes for sexual conquest in order to protect his girl from a new mafia presence infiltrating the Corralejo resort... but can he be bothered? Michael Baker is shockingly nasty character, the type of guy Welsh seems to really get a kick out of writing.

With the next two pieces, “The DOGS of Lincoln Park” and “Miss Arizona,” Welsh gets himself in a bit of a bind that he never really works his way out of. The disturbing activities he sets up early in each story are so heavily telegraphed that the reader would be equally disappointed whether or not the threat is carried through. Of the two, “Miss Arizona” is a stronger story, if for no other reason than that its characters are less obvious targets for satire.

Rounding out the collection is “Kingdom of Fife,” told through alternating perspectives in Scottish dialect and a more posh accent. Reaching the end of the anthology, it's a bit of a relief to have at least somewhat likable protagonists in the form of ex-jockey and current Foosball champion Jason King and his stalking target, Jenni Cahill. A friend's death impels Jason to get his life together and leave Fife, while complications with her gangster father pushes Jenni in the same direction. It's an oddly sweet love story involving dog fights, motorcycle crashes, and a boiled human skull.

Irvine Welsh's use of accent and dialect is a defining characteristic of his work, but in School/Work there are some surprising missteps, particularly in the American characters. The Chicago accent Welsh employs in “The DOGS of Lincoln Park” exists, yes, but it's pretty unlikely to manifest in the characters as they are written. Kendra, our pretentious Yuppie hero, occasionally says things like “No it is nat!” and “Oh my Gad,” which feels remarkably unnatural -- especially given the author's inconsistency in writing her this way. The nasal “a” also crops up in “Rattlesnake,” and seems even more improbable coming from west coast kids Eugene and “Scatt.”

Sometimes it's fun to read about really awful people, and Welsh supplies us with a good variety here. For those who count graphic scenes of human depravity in the “plus” column, If You Liked School... will be an immensely rewarding read.

If You Liked School, You'll Love Work, by Irvine Welsh
W.W. Norton and Company
ISBN: 978-0-393-33077-9
391 pages