Perhaps the descent into hell is just not as interesting as actually living in hell itself. That seems to be the central failing of Irvine Welsh’s prequel to his enormously popular book “Trainspotting.” At 532 relentless pages, “Skagboys,” another brilliant title, seems both mammoth and slight. Because, in the end, however colorful they may be, what is there for heroin addicts to do to pass the time? Skagging and shagging, and that’s about it, over and over: the needing and the wanting, the scrounging for money, the fix, the comedown, the near-death scrapes, the unscratchable itch that must be tended to and gotten over.
And, lest the reader think that “Skagboys” is the romp that the film version of “Trainspotting” became, bear in mind that this new novel is written in what is, essentially, a foreign language: low-country Scots. Many viewers wished for subtitles in the film; in “Skagboys,” the language is doubly opaque: “When ah git back tae the flat, Sick Boy still isnae back. Ah start tae strip oaf again n look at ma body in the full-length mirror. Ah systematically tourniquet and tap up ma veins, finding oot where the best yins are.”
Apart from its impenetrable language, the novel has other difficulties. We meet all of our old friends from “Trainspotting” — Mark Renton (the book’s hero, almost by default, and clearly a stand-in for Welsh himself), Sick Boy, Alison, Spud, the psychotic Begbie, along with dozens of other characters, many of whom have colorful semi-gangster nicknames — in the days when the rise in heroin usage in Dublin almost exactly paralleled the rise in unemployment in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. We watch and read as they lose their jobs, lose the will to fight for their rights and, in Renton’s case, lose the scholarships that might have kept him in university and on a track to a better sort of life.
“Skagboys” means to be a Dickensian panorama of Britain in distress, presided over by a true villainess, Thatcher, with Iggy Pop as patron saint and Pied Piper, while colorful characters do colorful things, ’80s-style. But Welsh lacks the essential quality of Dickens, the genius for narrative, and so his novel becomes a repetitious series of interludes and sketches: a bar fight here, a score there, a sexual coupling with or without desire, an argument about the merits of one English football team or rock band over another.
Certain scenes, though, are genuinely engrossing. Renton’s parents come to the slow realization that their promising son is about to chuck everything in his life away, a slave to his heroin addiction. Some lads break into a posh house with the intention of stealing valuables to trade for drugs, only to find a suicide, barely breathing, in a scene that’s both funny and touched with a certain grace.
Welsh tries to impress on us the importance of this novel by filling it with statistics on drug use, unemployment and the rise of AIDS, providing lengthy lists of the names of the victims. But “Skagboys” is, in the end, a bloated anecdote about unpleasant people who, having wrecked their own lives, have no future left except to wreck the lives of those who love them. A friend of mine described Welsh’s language as a carny ride, but, like most carnival rides, this novel goes only in one direction, at increasing velocity, and both the speed and the monotony begin to induce a kind of nausea. All we want to do is get back on solid ground, back to the narrative of our own lives, however mediocre they may be.
Goolrick’s most recent novel is “Heading Out to Wonderful.”
By Irvine Welsh
Norton. 532 pp. $26.95