18 July 2013

Book Review | Glue by Irvine Welsh

Anyone who read my lengthy celebration of Trainspotting in its two most famous forms was probably half-dreading my inevitable, interminable musings on the super-heavyweight of a tome with which it shares a sequel. But for all its heartbreaking depth and crippling charm, there is far less to say about Irvine Welsh’s Glue than there is its principal forerunner. Trainspotting was an episodic melting pot that dragged its readers from tale to tale at breakneck speed, whereas Glue is much more structured and specific. It maintains the snapshot-styled structure of Welsh’s first novel, but instead of a 36-exposure film of disposable camera six by fours, Glue’s four snapshots are huge, panoramic vistas; each set a decade or so apart, and each offering its four focal characters’ different perspectives on a formative event - or its aftermath.

The first time that I read Glue, I was surprised to discover that its title wasn’t an allusion to tales of substance abuse therein, but rather the metaphorical ties that bind a motley crew of Edinburgh lads from their shared working class background to destinies summed up by either fame, fortune, fornication or fatalism. Whilst still laden with the phonetic Scots dialogue common to almost all of Welsh’s works, the novel is characterised by glorious and evocative prose that occasionally threatens to undermine the characters’ independence. You can feel the omniscience creeping in as protagonists note “the dramas of future despair in pre-production” and ruminate upon anthropomorphised time “ripping the guts out of people, then setting them in stone and just slowly chipping away at them”. Indeed, the latter quote effectively sums up Glue’s mission statement as Welsh takes four boys, four families, and slowly melts them - all so that the reader may draw in their intoxicating fumes.

Rather than make a number of profound points through sharp machete moralising, Glue offers a ceaseless succession of astute and pointed ones; many trivial, others far from being such. I love the blend of the two; love how Welsh uses roughly the same number of words to convey one character’s paltry realisation that he’s just on the wrong side of a paradigm shift in male grooming, much to the detriment of his status in the middle-aged meat market, as he does another’s that he’s thrown his whole life away in a fleeting lapse of juvenile reason; the unthinking, spur-of-the-moment loan of a knife.  The touching, old-age death of one of the first characters that we meet in the book sits sandwiched between Terry’s patented “shag, shit, shave, shower” hangover cure recital and ginger-pube medical fantasy. Lives are saved by beer guts; psychos turned into Daleks with crossbows. And all the while, Glue remains resplendently true to life; true to the wacky adventures borne of friendships and the peculiar protocols that they engender.

And due to the level of exposure that Glue affords them, its four focal characters - Andrew Galloway, Billy ‘Business’ Birrell, Carl ‘N-Sign’ Ewart, and ‘Juice’ Terry Lawson - become just as familiar to the reader as those that headlined Trainspotting and would be revisited in Porno, Skagboys, and, in a few fleeting cameos, this book too. Birrell’s a likeable, stand-up guy; a boxer with the skill to be champion of the world, but not the constitution. Carl’s the pale and pasty ‘Milky Bar Kid’ destined to deejay despite falling foul of the press in an incident from which, in ‘Juice’ Terry-inspired defiance, he’d take his stage name. And then there’s perr wee Gally, whose tragedies follow each other in a domino-like cascade.

The novel’s superlative superstar though is the outmoded aerated water salesman who is, and probably forever will be, my favourite Welsh character. With his fierce arsenal of misogynistic quips that’d make Gene Hunt blush (“...a bird’s bush in your hand is worth two wi thir clathes oan...” / “A souvenir ay Blackpool…? Yir better ridin birds than trams, better lickin fannies thin sticks ay rock...”) and the brash confidence of a man whose erection is reputed to be “like one tin ay Irn-Bru stuck oan top ay another”, the corkscrew-heided tea-leaf is more outstanding than Franco Begbie. He’s even got a cunning that, to his delight and often-milked advantage, few people can see - until it’s too late. Every passage that he features in is sheer delight to read, suffused with guilty pleasure and begrudging admiration. Every passage, I should say, but one.

On both occasions that I’ve read this book, despite having comparatively little to say about it (without utterly ruining its plot, anyway), I’ve been left with the nagging sense that this turn-of-the-millennium rollercoaster Scots epic is, perhaps, Welsh’s finest work. Though it’s often ugly, as grim cause and harrowing effect are more pivotal players than the protagonists whose lives we are sucked into, it sensationally showcases “the spice ay life”; the passions and prejudices of a small pond’s big fish that ultimately prove alluring enough to inspire and ignite even an anorexic American songstress who’s lost her lust for life.

Irvine Welsh’s Glue is currently available in paperback (best price online today: £5.44 from AbeBooks) and digital formats (£5.98 from Amazon's Kindle Store or £6.49 from iTunes).