28 May 2013

Book Review | Skagboys by Irvine Welsh

If you’re one of the many who ‘got’ Trainspotting, as I did, then you probably laud it as one of the greatest works of fiction ever to come out of Great Britain. Irvine Welsh’s many offerings since have, for the most part, retained its raw and uncompromising style, and on occasion the great Scot has pushed the envelope even further, blurring the lines between contemporary urban tales and science fiction; even between his idiosyncratic Leith lingo and his hitherto seldom-seen RP prose. But despite the evident distinction of almost all his subsequent works, until Skagboys came along there wasn’t a single title in the Welsh canon that approached his first book in terms of significance. And I didn’t expect that there ever would be; after all, you can’t open Pandora’s box twice, can you?

Well, apparently you can.

A study in contrasts, Skagboys (or “The Junky and the Incest Victim”, as I’d love to have seen it subtitled) maintains every gram of Trainspotting’s sledgehammer squalor, but complements it with the thoughtful eloquence that has insidiously blossomed inside Welsh’s writing as the years have worn on. Rather than debase the piece, this articulacy only serves to heighten the unstoppable tragedy of it, as through its focal character’s notebook musings we truly appreciate just how far he is falling – and how fast. The aching abyss between the proud, politicised first-class university student seen in the events of “Concerning Orgreave” and the ubiquitously-dysfunctional collection tin-chorrier that bleeds into Trainspotting couldn’t possibly be any wider or deeper. For all Welsh’s even, honest and occasionally rapturous depiction of heroin, the image left lingering by Skagboys is that of two mute, humourless and Valium-fuelled orang-utans setting out into the night in search of a fix; not even ghosts of the flawed but vibrant inbetweeners of the novel’s start.

“Ah didnae ask tae live n ah’m no feart tae die. Aw that’ll happen is that it’ll be like before ah wis alive; it couldnae have been that great, but it wisnae that shite either, or ah’d have minded aboot it. Ah was just here tae get ma fuckin records.”

Though Welsh enlists many eyes and many voices in the telling of his terrible tale, as with Trainspotting, the one that’s heard the loudest is that of Mark Renton. When I first read of Rent Boy’s junk dilemmas in Trainspotting, I instantly identified with him as the deceptively smart one within his little tribe of misfits. I never quite appreciated though just how intellectually superior Rents was to his social peers until I launched into his piece of writing that opens Skagboys. Polished prose free of dialect vividly describes his experiences by his father’s side in the miners’ strikes, before quickly segueing into the blazing Edinburgh brogue that I’ve become worryingly adept at decoding. As the pages fly by, Welsh complements Renton’s already obvious love of music with a love of literature that shines through not only in his attitude to and performance in higher education, but his opposite and opposing pretend-loser life in Leith. Irrespective of his state or location, Renton continually turns to literature to inform his perception of life and even himself, affording him a pretentious quality that he consciously plays up to - save for when he’s playing the inverted snob at uni, that is. But underneath each of his carefully-constructed veneers lie all manner of torments, from the bizarre and grotesque memories stirred by his brother’s phantom menace to a betrayal that he will never forgive himself for. Welsh painfully adds thread after thread to the tapestry of Renton, each threatening to unravel him; each threatening to explain or justify his apathetic slide into “substance dependency”, but none making good on the threat.

When discussing the book, Welsh has explained how much of its material had originally been written for Trainspotting but for one reason or another didn’t make the final cut, such as the ‘Sick Boy and Renton in Hackney’ novella specifically mentioned in one interview. However, much of Skagboys’ material, particularly towards its end, is lifted from Renton’s sprawling rehab diaries – a “junky War and Peace” that, in my view, ranks amongst the author’s most powerful published material to date. Focused by its writer’s internment and fuelled by a genuine desire to “get the habit under control” (few of the characters in rehab want to stop using smack altogether, despite their desperate-to-avoid-jail protestations otherwise), Welsh hauls the reader of the bumpiest of terrain in search of something that, again, he doesn’t seem to believe exists.

This futile quest for personal motive is, in many ways, the central theme of the book. To my great surprise, even Franco Begbie comes dangerously close to having explanations, if not excuses, for his psychopathic behaviour, some of which are counterpointed by shockingly poignant moments of grace. Welsh’s depiction of the Generalissimo’s Hogmany singing is one of the most stirring and insightful passages that he’s ever written, effortlessly capturing the “pained, malevolent spirit”’s standing in the eyes of his peers and the obvious affection that he holds them in. Though Skagboys sees the young skinhead rub shoulders with gangsters and villains whose company you’d think would suit him better, even he concedes that they don’t “get” him or his (elusive) sense of humour like his  long-suffering mates do.

Armed with his “deadlier than a loaded revolver dictionary”, Shimon Williamson, aka Shick Boy, is afforded almost as much of the book’s many storylines as Renton, and on balance I think I enjoyed reading about his egregious (today’s an ‘E’ day, see) exploits every bit as much. I’d half-expected the Sick Boy of Skagboys to be a tamer, perhaps less assured, version of his more familiar future self, but if anything he’s even more outrageous than the Porno star that he’s destined to become. In no time at all he’s utterly ruined an entire family, opportunistically restyling himself as a toy boy for the widow and, a little later, pimp for the daughter, before packing his bags and heading down south to try and marry a toff or, failing that, smuggle a bit of brown over the high seas. This young man who would will a suicidal friend to jump off a tower block simply to cast himself as a sympathy-shag player in a short, tragic life; this shallow youth who would purposefully hook a minor on junk with the express intent of not only claiming her pussy for himself, but renting it out to fuel his habit when the need arises; this overdriven plot catalyst who would even take it up the Bendix if it helps him to get his leg over afterwards, is masochistically compelling throughout, never softening even when Welsh delves into the daddy issues that seem to have shaped the self-important misogynist.

But with nearly double the page count of the novel that it leads into, Skagboys’ canvas is inevitably much broader, and the book is all the richer for it. As well as Spud, Tommy, Matty, Second Prize, Swanney, Raymie, Keezbo and the rest of the usual suspects, a number of users who appeared as acquaintances in Trainspotting are presented as firm friends here, along with menacing characters previously known “by rep only” and a number of brand new players too. Of these, it was fierce feminist and damaged daughter Alison; cockney punk “farking” Nicksy; and the mirror lens-sporting, half-crippled Seeker (who’s introduced like a Doctor Who monster and reads like a drug-pushing cross between Edgar Davids and the biker-gimmick Undertaker) that really hooked me. Alison especially is a revelation; the “better than any cock in the world” junky of Trainspotting fame is presented here as a lively, poetic young woman whose mother’s illness and father’s inadequacy cast a pall over her Sick Boy-enamoured spirit, but even Seeker subverts expectation, turning from Bond villain to pseudo-saviour in the space of half a book, depending on your definition of salvation. The pained pasts and presents of the entire ensemble are brought into sharp focus by the author, who tears apart their respective histories like a clinical psychologist on speed, only to find an absence of answers therein. They are just people being people, all the way to Hell; the issue isn’t with them, it’s with a world of schemes that look like “graph-paper printouts”, where nothing works but works and the only angels of mercy are those “sent by skag” to break and enter.

And it is here that Skagboys really blazes. I’ve never read a book before that has such a spreading sense of sickness, be it the allegorical “Dutch Elm Disease” ravaging Edinburgh’s treescape; the cancer that robs at least two subsidiary characters of their breasts; the emergent HIV / AIDS epidemic; or the all-pervading ascent of Thatcher and death of the post-war dream. Welsh’s “Notes on a Epidemic” are littered throughout the text along with HIV infection reports which, in of themselves, become as moving as the narrative as the page count soars. The ill-fated Matty’s name in the final report, whilst expected by those of us who’ve read Trainspotting, is cripplingly effective, as is the otherwise-extraneous name of a child born with HIV antibodies, her mother infected when copping off with a junky.

And so, despite having grown out of trimmed fat, Skagboys is actually the pure china white to Trainspotting’s brown. A refined, and in many ways superior, product, Skagboys retains the great hits and gallows humour of the game-changing novel that begat it, but presents them with the benefit of a further two decades’ hindsight and the poise that only comes with having a dozen bestsellers under your belt. For anyone who has yet to read any Irvine Welsh, Skagboys is a perfect jumping on point, but I’d urge them to make sure that they’ve got the hireys for the rest of his back catalogue before leaping, ’cos the chances are they’ll be well into it before the month’s out. Those that loved Trainspotting, meanwhile, can put away their cold soup and melted ice cream, ’cos the drought is finally over - their fix is here.

Skagboys is now available in paperback (best price online today: £3.85 on Amazon) and digital formats (£3.66 from Amazon’s Kindle Store or £3.99 from iTunes). The hardback is still available too from a few retailers (best price online today: £8.96 on Amazon).