Life choice

Skagboys by Irvine Welsh, Jonathan Cape, RRP£12.99, 548 pages

“The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy ... ” By the now famous opening words of Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh’s protagonists are already addicted to heroin and rattling with withdrawal. Its prequel asks and half-answers the question: where did it all go wrong? At the outset of Skagboys, Mark Renton is on the brink of adulthood. He has a job, a place at Aberdeen University and a girlfriend with whom he is deeply in love. His smooth, womanising best friend Sick Boy is at this point still a loveable rogue. Yet we know – even before Renton first shoots up, inspired by idle curiosity and the “perversity and obstinacy [ ... ] integral tae the Scottish character” – what is to come.

“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth” was Philip Larkin’s mordant assessment of his muse. To adapt his formula: heroin is for Irvine Welsh what irresistible grace was for James Hogg. Those who see in Welsh only a sort of grotesque slapstick – a tendency encouraged by the 1996 film of Trainspotting – miss a good deal of what’s distinctive about him.

Welsh’s real literary ancestors are the Hogg of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and the Robert Louis Stevenson of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Underneath all the ridin and swedgin and gammin and pishin, the oozing scabs and diseased bodies and dead babies, Welsh’s concerns are with sin and salvation, with the exercise of free will and with the individual soul. He’s much more interested in teleology than sociology.

Accordingly, though this prequel opens with an account of the Orgreave picket during the 1984 miners’ strike, it is far from being a hymn to workers’ solidarity, and the passage ends with the narrator getting out of the coach alone on the side of a motorway. The burden of the story is not just the destruction of the collective in Thatcher’s Britain: it is a repudiation of the idea of the collective as a moral category.

When forced to attend rehab, Renton, the most articulate and self-knowing of Welsh’s characters, refuses the therapeutic account of addiction: “I’m not going along with all that powerless loser shite that it’s a disease. IS IT FUCK A DISEASE. I’VE DONE THIS TO MYSELF.” Heroin addiction is there not as a metaphor but as a sort of paradigm: a morally inverted Thatcherism. The addict is the ultimate individualist. As in Trainspotting, where to “choose life” was to buy into the deadening unfreedom of consumer society, the rejection of “choice” is perversely framed as empowering. (There’s an echo, here, of Burroughs’s paranoid figuration of the way the structures of junk dependency mirror the structures of political power in Naked Lunch.)

Which is not to say that this big, rambling, bludgeoning book behaves like an essay: only to say that its preoccupations are clear and they are serious. Everything else you expect to enjoy or deplore in Welsh is present: the linguistic vigour, the filth, the comical-scatological set-pieces, the loveless drop-of-a-hat sex, the scams and betrayals, the geeky arguments about music, the fights at the “fitba”, the nudging suggestion that there might be something gayer than they’d like to admit in all these boys who can relate only to boys.

But there’s also a serious undertow to do with morality and determinism. Franco Begbie, with his energising crackle of violence, is scary but not knowing enough to be evil: he’s a thing of instinct. The real damned soul is Sick Boy, who, in a Victoriangothic sub-plot, seduces a 15-year-old girl, gets her on heroin, pimps her out and then lets her father’s killer rape her. Renton – who has a conscience and, conscientiously, breaks his girlfriend’s heart – is both in their world and out of it, a double creature (indeed, in his journals he has to remind himself to stop writing in standard English, scoring out “football” to write “fitba”). He chooses, finally, to have no choice.

The 1980s background music is carefully orchestrated. Unravellings at every level echo each other. Dutch elm disease and Aids are spreading. Local shop stewards are losing their power; local drug dealers are getting lower down the pyramid; immigration is causing tension. Locally sourced, snow-white, pharmaceutical skag gives way to brown stuff coming from Pakistan up from London. Neighbours are asked to grass up benefit cheats. Junkies are stealing charity collection tins.

God knows, there are things wrong with this book. There’s almost certainly too much of it and everything’s over-the-top. Welsh’s sentences can be over-worded and ungainly – seeming to do more lexical work than the thoughts they contain. There are fizzled sub-plots and lurches of tone. The chaotic patchwork of narratives that distinguished Trainspotting – zipping from one first-person narrator to another, with the occasional passage of third-person – is reprised, though it’s far from a difficult or confusing read. Welsh sometimes leans too heavily on verbal tics to differentiate the speakers, and Londoners sound like Dick Van farking Dyke. It’s a bit of a mess.

But then Moby-Dick is a bit of a mess. The lives Skagboys describes are a lot of a mess. And mess – violence begetting violence not karmically but randomly; cause and effect in freefall – is the medium they inhabit. In terms of sustaining and developing an idea – heroin, perhaps, as Welsh’s white whale – the cumulative force of Skagboys is something close to magnificent. There are occasional passages of hallucinatory lyricism and an ending that’s as good as anything he’s done, and that reminded me, tonally, of Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. From a sometimes uneven writer this is an extraordinary piece of work.

Sam Leith is author of ‘You Talkin’ To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama’ (Profile)

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