Wednesday, July 17, 2013

SKAGBOYS, by Irvine Welsh

Skagboys (Mark Renton series Book 1)

I read TRAINSPOTTING shortly after seeing the movie.  I liked it, and went on to read ECSTASY and MARABOU STORK NIGHTMARES and YOU'LL HAVE HAD YOUR HOLE (his first play, which I read standing up in a bookstore) in the next few years.  I also saw the movie version of THE ACID HOUSE (which Welsh wrote the screenplay for), though I thought it was a bit of a letdown after TRAINSPOTTING.  And then, after a few years without Welsh, I came across PORNO in the limited English-language section of a bookstore in Madrid, and I bought that and read it too (and buying a book brand new is a rare thing for me).

For a while, in a fairly formative period of my life as a person and as a writer, I considered him a favorite author.  When I think about it now, he remains one of the authors I've read the most words by.  And he's influenced my view of certain things in a way that persists to this day.  I lived in Scotland for about seven months (mostly in Edinburgh, but also several months in Perth, and I traveled to nearly every little town during my days off from that Perth job--not much to do in Perth itself, you know), and despite the fact that the Scotland I experienced rarely resembled the Scotland Welsh depicts in his writing, it's still his version that some how feels more real to me.

But that was a while back--seems like ages--and I was living a different life then.  I moved countries every six months or so.  I gave little thought to careers or a long-term future.  I dreamed of writing important literary works, but spent more time dreaming than actually writing.

And, gradually, I settled into a more stable life.  I stayed in one city (San Francisco) for nearly a decade--long enough to get a University degree and waste a few years with one employer (before that I'd always quit jobs every few months--as soon as I had a bit of cash saved up).  I even got married recently--though I quit my job and left San Francisco before doing so.  Still, I'm in a much different place now than where I was when I was reading Welsh.

But a few days ago I saw a copy of Welsh's new book SKAGBOYS in the library, and I checked it out.  I've been reading it, and I wanted to write about that here.  I wanted to write about what it's making me feel.

Frankly, for the first 150 pages or so, I felt like I was coming home.  I felt such an affinity for the world Welsh creates in his books, such a connection with the points of views of the characters, that it almost made the last ten years of my life seem like some sort of dream.  It made me feel like the life he writes about was more real than the life I've been living.

And then, gradually, that feeling started to fade.  The gritty realness started to feel exaggerated, cartoon-like.  The characters started feeling fake.  And I started feeling like Welsh, instead of creating something true and authentic, was just trying to push buttons.

I think it's sort of related to the plot.  Welsh sets up the start of the novel with finesse, but halfway through he's already torched it all.  For an example, look at the sordid drama Welsh creates for Sick Boy.

*SPOILER ALERT* (for anybody that actually cares, which I usually don't)

Sick Boy notices his 15-year-old neighbor is "blossoming into hotness" (Welsh doesn't use those terms, but that's the general idea).  He decides to bond with the girl's alcoholic dad in order to get at the girl--buying dad drinks, helping him along the path to his own destruction.  And then, once the dad gets (accidentally) killed in a bar-related pummeling, Sick Boy moves in on the dead drunk's wife.  Okay, Welsh; I'm still with you.  But then, after taking advantage of the mom's vulnerable state in order to get laid, Sick Boy helps her decide to commit fraud--not reporting drunk dad's death in order to keep collecting his pension checks.  Promptly after that she get's thrown in jail, and Sick Boy moves in on the girl.  Get's her hooked on heroin.  Starts her turning tricks for drug money.  And finally, to end this little melodrama, pimps her to the man who murdered her father (who uses the opportunity to deliver the line "I'm your daddy now.")

Through every imaginable level of disaster, step by step with no delays or detours or moments of characters stopping for a second to try to go anywhere else, Welsh takes us to the very bottom.  And this is less than halfway through the book.

It goes that way with other characters.  You've got Begbie face-fucking some girl in front of her father--under the mistletoe on Christmas, might I add--and then threatening the dad with violence.  You've got Renton giving his severely handicapped brother a handjob--fair enough, Welsh; maybe you could make this work--but then the surly older brother busts in... and catches the cumshot on his face and across his military uniform!

We've gone from tragedy to childish farce, and from dark to just plain dim.

Which has me wondering, in the end, about the interest I felt for Welsh's writing in my more youthful days, my days of international travel and passionate avoidance of the status quo.  Was he writing better stuff, then?  Was I more in touch?

Or was I just more immature?