September 2012

Josh Zajdman


Skagboys by Irvine Welsh

Oh, how I expected, no wanted, to love this book. In fairness, its first section, "Tempted," was fascinating. But the remaining five are more of the same. What was once engaging, clever, disturbing, even, becomes boring, repetitive, and uninteresting. Factor in the Scottish vernacular and a reading of Skagboys becomes arduous. It isn't that the characters, or the style, are bereft of angle or interest. Well, actually, it is just that. They are young, impulsive, self-destructive children railing against parents or society or convention. It's all territory that's been covered before, in the work of Welsh, Ellis, McInerney, and a handful of other similar-minded authors. Unfortunately, the results are the same -- another maximillist, drug-filled ode to navel-gazing. Bleh. It just feels so dated and stale.

I realized the issue. I wasn't fondly remembering the novel Trainspotting. After reading Skagboys, I slogged through it again, looking for a glimmer of something I might have passed. It was the film version of Trainspotting that I flipped for. It was Danny Boyle and Iggy Pop, a young, bewitching Kelly MacDonald, an electric boho philosopher Ewan McGregor, and a terrifying Robert Carlyle you couldn't take your eyes off of. The novel, not so much. Shit. So the five-hundred-plus-page prequel was tough going. If you've seen the movie, you know where and how Rent, Sick Boy, Spud and, of course, Begbie, end up. The really irritating part of reading Skagboys is turning each page and seeing the cast of the film. The really irritating part of thinking about the film is Danny Boyle moving on to Slumdog Millionaire and that absolutely ridiculous Olympics opening ceremony. Separate issue -- back to Irvine Welsh.

Early in the novel, young Mark Renton, home from school (a rarity among his chums), is working at a summer job.

But ah didnae care how monotonous an de-skilled the job wis, ah just wanted tae keep my heid doon, hide in some solid graft, build a few panels, sweat oaf the toxins fae the weekend's drink and speed, and work through this mashed vertebrae and mean depression till brek time.

This is a description largely devoid of melodrama and an overwhelming need to hit the events of the prequel squarely enough to land on the green that is the sequel. Savor it, as it's one of the few. That's another issue with Welsh's novel. You can almost feel him forcibly lining up events, or character choices, so they will neatly link up with those made in the sequel. While prequels, or sequels, can be nice ideas, it doesn't seem like it's too much to ask that they say something in their own right. It asks a lot of a reader to continue reading the same recycled events for page after page, only to occasionally change things up by throwing in some connective tissue. While backstories are provided for these characters, they are over-encumbered by detail (every single sexual encounter, pub crawl, etc.) and that gets tiring over hundreds of pages. Speaking of things that are somewhat grating: the seriousness imbued in discussion of all things heroin. Now, don't misunderstand me. Obviously, it's a serious topic. But Welsh is not a writer for gradation and nuance. As he spends page after page, "fuck off; git tae fuck" and so on, overtly sentimental moments abound. There are funerals, familial strife, terminal illness, bouts of criminally low self-esteem, and conflicts within friendships. Alongside these, Welsh injects these awful proverb-like considerations of the junkie life as the novel's characters fall ever deeper down the rabbithole. One of the more ridiculous was Mark's epiphanic instance of "thinking about how much a life can change in the time it takes tae fix up." The other argues for a shared humanity, or a sense of community, whether it be amongst friends, users, or people in a pub. It's "bein part ay a team, huvin somethin tae talk aboot, a tale tae tell. Cause wi aw need that; wi aw need someting tae dae n a tale tae tell." Now, in between these heroin-y Hallmark moments, Mark and his fellow employees, get high, drunk, prowl for women, and defecate on newspaper, so as to measure the largest and bestow supremacy on the defecator.

After 544 pages, the last line clicks into place and the final gear is fixed. That's a heroin reference, and not a hipster bike joke, so we are clear. "Cauld turkey's on the menu and we'll dae it, nae fuckin bother. It's the end ay the line for me, he smiles in the darkness, kicking the stone steps under his feet. -- Ah've taken this skag thing as far as it kin go." Now, if only Welsh had realized that hundreds of pages ago.

Skagboys by Irvine Welsh
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393088731
544 pages