Skagboys by Irvine Welsh review

by Michael Larsen / 12 May, 2012
Irvine Welsh returns to the <em>Trainspotting</em> well with a prequel.
The provenance of Irvine Welsh’s weighty 548-page Skagboys is not auspicious: it’s a “prequel” to the enormously successful Trainspotting, and although it is a story in its own right, Welsh has freely articulated that a great deal of the material was “left over” from his 1993 breakthrough book.

The size is a worry: does Welsh’s success mean he has free rein to give voice to his usual concerns without the stifling red pen of an editor? And tying it directly to Trainspotting reeks a little of piggy backing on his most significant literary contribution in the hope of reigniting his star, 20 years on. Welsh, mostly, is better than that. He blows any cynical concerns out of the water by the sheer force of his writing and the way it pulls you in from the outset, dunking you in the filth and grime of 1980s Edinburgh junkie hell and spitting you out at the end wondering what it was all about.

Yes, Skagboys sets up the Trainspotting characters and story, (re)introducing us to main narrator Mark Renton, and his dubious mates Sick Boy, Spud, Begbie, Tommy, et al, while introducing a few new faces to the cast. Some of these others take a turn at telling the tale, one related in Welsh’s typical “Scottish English”, where football is “fitba”, always is “eyewis”, and when it comes to skag (= Salisbury Crag = heroin), all you want is “mair”.

Where the gritty realism of Trainspotting backgrounded what ultimately became a heist story, the narrative here is Renton’s, as we watch him go from university-lad-with-potential to junkie loser to rehab guest in a short space of time. The story, then, is an interior one, which gives Welsh the opportunity to use Renton as his mouthpiece to describe, with varying success, everything from the rush of the first hit of heroin through to the contemptible nature of 80s Britain. Which makes criticisms of self-indulgence unavoidable.

Skagboys is too long, with meanderings that could have been excised completely, and others that would have benefited from that editorial pen. The writing is still top-notch, though, and the goings on at various turns hilarious, engaging and horrifying. If this really was the state of the nation 30 years ago and, as we’re constantly told, things have got worse, I hate to think what might be happening on the streets of Leith in 2012. Maybe Welsh could report back on that rather than mining his old notebooks. Although this is a great read, it feels more like a fi ller than a genuine new work, and that air of irrelevance never really escapes its pages.

SKAGBOYS, by Irvine Welsh (Jonathan Cape, $37.99).

Michael Larsen is a writer and reviewer.

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