Near the end of Skagboys, there is a scene where the central character, Mark Renton, and four fellow junkies are trying, desperately and stupidly, to break into an Edinburgh facility where they think heroin is being manufactured. Renton ruminates on the Scottish Enlightenment, the Edinburgh of David Hume and Adam Smith, one of the most literate cities in the world at the time: “From the deliberations and actions of Edinburgh’s finest sons in the 18th century, to its poorest ones poisoning themselves with heroin at the close of this one.” – an arc that takes us from The Wealth of Nations to Skagboys.
Skagboys is the prequel to Irvine Welsh’s debut novel, Trainspotting (1993), and we revisit the lives of those characters – Mark (Rent Boy) Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, Keezbo and the violent psychopath Begbie. The book starts with Renton and his father caught up in a violent clash between striking miners and police, Arthur Scargill bellowing through a megaphone as the truncheons land. Not long after, Renton’s seriously disabled baby brother dies. And so begins the descent from university student to heroin addict, almost all of it in colloquial Scottish.
As with most of Welsh’s work, there are moments of levity (a discussion over who would win in a fight: the effete seventies singer Gilbert O’Sullivan or soprano-voiced Leo Sayer), interspersed with moral and physical squalor, violence, grotesqueries and a Celtic despair that is boundless.
Throughout Skagboys, sober political reportage appears under the title Notes on an Epidemic. They catalogue how Thatcher’s policies exacerbated the jobless, drug-fuelled and, eventually, AIDS-related despair, though Welsh is careful not to dump all this in Thatcher’s lap. “But ah’ve done this tae masel,” Renton muses. “Ah’ve done it; destroyed the sovereign state ay Mark Renton …” As Renton says in Trainspotting, “Choose life … I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
Welsh discarded 100,000 words from the original Trainspotting manuscript. The result was a very tight, vibrant book. The sequel, Porno, which tracked Renton and his mates nine years later, and had them making an unappetizing porn film, was much longer, but had less impact. Welsh’s remarkable talent for dialogue was still there, but the book lacked the power of its predecessor. As a lengthy prequel, Skagboys is closer to Porno in its construction and mood. Those 100,000 discarded words were recovered and, one assumes, some of them are in Skagboys. There are brilliant scenes, but the story of addiction is a one-note tale.
Unrelievedly colloquial novels are an act of bravery in today’s ruthless market, and it was a feat for Welsh to take a squalid subject delivered in dialect and make it so compelling that the world clamoured at his door. The seduction of Trainspotting was that clear, caustic voice that illuminated the Scottish underclass. Like Updike’s exploration of Rabbit Angstrom’s corner of Pennsylvania, or Faulkner’s mythic Yoknapatawpha County, Welsh’s Edinburgh is vividly drawn over the course of his novels. It comes alive in description and especially in conversation. But revisiting the characters has largely been an exercise in diminishing returns. The perils of a brilliant debut.
One theme that remains in Skagboys is Scotland’s gift for self-inflicted wounds. The final scene has the five junkies attempting an ill-fated break-in while suffering from withdrawal. When the guards and dogs arrive, Keezbo is left behind without much compunction. Sick Boy and Matty have a screaming match and issue death threats. Spud runs off. Sick Boy and Renton limp along, friends forever, a pledge that doesn’t survive either of the sequels.
Perhaps we’ll see the gang again in 2014 when the referendum on Scottish independence takes place. It’s an issue that predates Sir Walter Scott’s myth-building 18th-century novels (Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian) and has continued through Irvine’s oeuvre (Porno, Filth, Skagboys). The state of the nation as one mythology gives way to another. O Caledonia.
Toronto writer Don Gillmor is the author most recently of Stratford Behind the Scenes, with photos by Erin Samuel. His next novel is scheduled for publication in 2013.