I am just old enough to remember the terrific fuss that was made about the first Scots literary renaissance when it kicked into gear in the early 1980s. Inaugurated by Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981), whipped up into a movement by Gray, Agnes Owens and James Kelman’s Lean Tales (1985), and sent on a downward spiral by the latter’s Booker-winning How Late It Was How Late (1994), its distinguishing features were Glasgie patois, the conviction that everything was Mrs Thatcher’s fault, and a colossal amount of swearing. If you knew the meaning of the word ‘fuck’, a critic once wearily suggested, then about 10 per cent of Kelman’s work was already known to you.
The second Scots literary renaissance, which started making its presence felt at about the time the first descended into parody, was a very different animal. Its locus classicus was Edinburgh rather than Glasgow, and although everything was still Mrs Thatcher’s fault there was much less reliance on Kelmanesque visions of old-style Scots socialism. Worse, although the swearing levels were manfully kept up, its chief poison was not alcohol but drugs: amphetamines, MDMA and, above all, the heroin which gives Welsh’s sprawling new novel — a mid-1980s prequel to his genre-defining Trainspotting (1994) — both its title and its subject matter.
Over double the length of its slimline predecessor, much more interested in the idea of plot and character, and much closer, traditionalists will be keen to learn, to being a ‘proper’ novel than simply a statement of intent, Skagboys finds most of Welsh’s cast far from purposefully at large in early-twenty-something backyard torpor: Renton studying at the University of Aberdeen and squiring the glamorous Fiona; Francis ‘Franco’ Begbie pursuing his usual psychotic vendettas; Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson as unsafe in the company of the ladies as ever; and poor, gentle Daniel ‘Spud’ Murphy getting used to an aimless and horizon-free life on the dole.
Bored, ground down and shiftless, everyone is on a fast track to addiction. Ominously, most of the funny-horrible set pieces in which Welsh specialises have their roots in the eternal drug-quest. These include a burglary interrupted by the discovery of a suicide victim in one of the bedrooms, an immortal scene in which Spud, inveigled into a visiting chanteuse’s hotel suite, is ejected into the corridor without his clothes, and an episode in which Renton, arriving at his friend Keezbo’s flat with a stolen charity box and the police in hot pursuit, finds himself in the midst of an epochal Leith ‘domestic’.
Renton ends up in rehab, where he composes a scarifying journal. As blackly humorous as comedy can be while still raising a laugh (‘A drooling simpleton doesnae make a busload ay sentient chums but naebody likes to see a young cunt stiffed and there’s a healthy turnoot’ Renton notes of his disabled brother’s funeral), Skagboys falters only in Welsh’s inability to harmonise the two styles in which he characteristically performs. These are high-octane tenement banter on the one hand and a curiously stilted and possibly even parodic drawing-room English on the other. As most of the novel is done in his trademark radging-wi’-the-Hibbies philosopher’s demotic, this is a minor drawback.
Having previously thought that a little of Irving Welsh went a very long way, I ended up charmed beyond measure, if that is the right word for a novel whose odd moments of poignance are regularly booted into touch by death, disillusionment and dereliction.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 21, 2012Tags: Book review, Drugs, Fiction, Heroin, Novel