IF YOU LIKED SCHOOL,YOU’LL LOVE WORK….

Irvine Welsh
Jonathan Cape, £11.99 pp391 ISBN 9780224075886
by Ronald Frame

Welsh Rarebit

October 26, 2009 | by Ronald Frame

No, I hadn’t read Irvine Welsh either. His books seemed easy to resist. The hype. The style-accessory business. The yoof market (even if the author wasn’t young). I recall a press story about the Grampian police deploring the effects of Trainspotting, the film, its glorification of drugs.

You can be accused of snobbery (literary or social or moral), of sticking you head in the sand. I don’t think that was the reason in my case. I just don’t like to feel I’m being manipulated, into Being Affronted. Just as, at the other extreme, I felt I’d been brazenly worked on by something so sickly sweet as Cinema Paradiso.

More Irvine Welsh books. And somehow, having given the first titles a miss, one felt even less inclined. The author presumably faced the dilemma that sales success brings: living with the licence to spend and travel while his characters remained stuck in much the same rut.

Confession time.

I don’t know if I was wrong or not about the predecessors. But I devoured If You Liked School,You’ll Love Work…. I haven’t read anything so entertaining fictionwise for a long time. I couldn’t wait to get back to it.

Four short stories – plus what’s called a novella, which a less generous publisher might have passed off as a bona fide novel. Yes, the old compunction to push things to their limits is still there, and sometimes it feels a tad forced. The drugs, of course (human ashes stirred in with cocaine and speed – very voguish, no?), and the sex (all tastes catered for, with a little time spent in a horse stall). The expletives are spray-gunned across every page. There are absolutely no sacred cows, and no taboos: everything and everyone gets it in the neck – religion, commerce, royalty, politicians, slebs (select football club managers are let off – the Big Man himself, Jock Stein, Sir Alex, and “thon wee dago c***”). If you want to be educated about impromptu surgery on an adult male’s member – dog fights – taxidermy – paedophilia – decapitation – the anatomical consequences of horse-riding on pubescent girls ….

The publisher’s blurb promises us “filth”, and the author duly delivers. You’ll either get beyond the first few pages or you won’t. If you’re up to speed (the other sort) on “rug-munching”, “facials”, “ham shanks”, and “bot-tlings”, you’ll be fine. But what this notoriety obscures is the essential good nature of much of the content. And it’s also irresistibly funny. The book was shaking in my hand several times as I read – from laughter, I mean.

Irvine Welsh is superbly comic. And I recommend that you read him as that first and foremost: a master humorist, who has taken a somewhat curious route to expose (ooh-er) his talents.

The story put at the top of the collection is the weakest. This may actually be the best place for it: as the book continues, one marvels at Welsh’s ease and command of tone, and the contrast might have been heightened. ‘Rattlesnakes’ is one of three set in the States, and culminates in a bite in an unfortunate place: 200 miles northeast of Las Vegas, in the desert, and inside a sleeping bag, in the boxer shorts department. The ending isn’t quite what we’re expecting, but this ability to trump our expectations is better displayed in what follows.

The title story features a community of expat chancers settled (sort of) in the Canaries. It’s a superb feat of verbal identification, 55-plus pages of completely convincing Sarf Lun’n patois.

Nah, it’s the Canaries for me: all-year-round sun and holiday skirt gagging on it. You can stick England up your f***ing arse. Looking round my old mum’s house now, it saddens me how little she’s got to show for her life. A bit of furniture, the telly and a few bleeding knick-knacks on the mantelpiece, that’s her lot. Represents the last of that generation who kept their noses clean, dutifully lined up to fight in some daft farking war, and listened like nodding dogs to the Queen slavering shit every Christmas. Of course, just like their forefathers, they were royally shafted.

I think that those who have accused Welsh of misogyny in his work (via the male characters) ignore or underestimate his unusual willingness to see also through women’s eyes. It would be difficult to be seduced by a story if half the dramatis personae were unbelievable, and this island farce is wholly compelling. I saw none of the tale’s surprises coming – or rather, whatever I imagined might be going to happen he cunningly reversed.

In the following story, ‘The DOGS of Lincoln Park’, Welsh just as subtly thwarts all expectations. We’re in upscale downtown Chicago, more fluently rendered than the Nevada wastelands of the first story. Welsh maintains a meticulous balance of Sex In The City bitchy chitchat and sinister grand guignol (perhaps). Here he’s among the women (with one Korean man) – Kendra and her fashionplate friends, a tiny privileged world of realtors and pet behaviouralists – and, as he wrong-foots us, he doesn’t put a foot wrong himself. He writes all those people to the life, gets under their skin.

Which is, er, kinda the point of the fourth story: literally so. This gruesome tale of four-times widowed Yolanda, (very much ex-) ‘Miss Arizona’, outplays even Stephen King at his own game. Another setting (Phoenix, Arizona), so real that we’re there, and another narrator, who casts his spell on us and pulls us in.

My name is Raymond Wilson Butler. I’m thirty-eight years old, divorced, and a native of West Texas.

The furnace heat – terror-alert coding (orange), burn limit (fourteen minutes) – is just the set-up Welsh needs for this electrifying page-turner. The details accrue; minutiae become portents.

… as I went to step in, putting my hand on the [door] frame, a lizard jumped out from nowhere, danced over my old mitt, then ran up the side of the house. It froze for a second, pulsing slowly in the heat before slurpin into a crack in the wall like some vacuum had sucked it in.

Raymond Wilson Butler should just have turned, there and then, and got the hell out.

We return to more familiar Welsh territory in the short novel, ‘The Kingdom of Fife’. Or perhaps it’s not so familiar after all: an outrageous cartoon version of Central Fife – very nearly, once upon a time, a possible Soviet Socialist People’s Republic: so says the father of our vertically-challenged narrator, Jason King, who’s an ex-jockey and table-football wiz with a penchant for Cat Stevens (pre-Islamic version).

The inventiveness gushes out (like much else) fast and furious. There’s even a disclaimer at the end of the book. Just as well:

When you write about places such a Cowdenbeath, and you come from a physically wee country like Scotland, you have the responsibility to emphasise that this is not meant to depict the ‘real’ place, but rather the ‘Cowdenbeath’ of my imagination at the particular time of writing.

But nothing in Fife can save the local lowlife. Of course it depends on where you’re standing (or falling, either coked out or pissed) as to what constitutes low-life. How about the rich, for instance – or warmongering Prime Ministers?

– That’s nivir a Labour man, no wi a mooth like thon. That’s a hoor’s mooth thon. Must huv been worth a fortune at that posh Fettes school wi a mooth like that; aye, well sought eftir, ah kin f***in’ well bet ye! That Eton Tory wanker that’s gaunnae replace um: a f***in’ clone!

Central Fife: birthplace of political economist Adam Smith, and thereby co-creator of enlightened thought, hence capitalism. But the characters, from the giro-cheating skivers and bampots to the jumped-up haulage contractor Tam Cahill, all believe themselves to have failed and been failed.

I see the serious purpose behind the dark and grisly humour of the piece. The characters have insight into their condition. Even the remorseless sexual activity is a response to the knowledge of their bodies’ physical disintegration, sooner rather than later.

Does their creator, from wherever he’s now domiciled, want to change the world? I don’t know. Novels less than ever, in multi-media times, have that capacity. But comedy, from the time of Cervantes and Sterne and Fielding, has proved as efficient, and often lacerating, a method of critique as what the miserabilists and sobersides offer us. The older I get, the more I appreciate this. I’m not putting Welsh into that noble tradition, nor am I discounting the possibility. It’s too soon to tell. If an author is very lucky, if, then one of his or her books might survive. In Welsh’s case, should that happen, it’s most likely to be the first novel – from timing alone, simply because it appeared to catch the zeitgeist.

I haven’t read his oeuvre, so I can’t tell if Welsh has matured. But these stories strike me as hugely assured. One might have an occasional reservation. Perhaps Goth Jenni is a little too literate and too worldly-wise for her age and situation (bored out of her mind by a “one-hoarse toon” like Beath, sunbeds to hand at Alpha Leisure but without even a Costa Café to its name). Or what about ‘that disgusting, foul old tramp’ (according to Jenni), who turns out to be a disgraced Kirk minister, fallen upon fornication and the demon Buckfast. There’s a slightly gooey moment when a funeral congregation applauds his candour, after he’s struggled back up into the pulpit at a druggie’s send-off.

Those are quibbles. An eccentric comparison might be with Henry James – because of the sly way we’re coaxed into conjuring out of our own imagination(s) even worse horrors than what’s there on the page. (Welsh’s last laugh.)

I don’t doubt Welsh is undervalued, not least in Scotland. (Should he even care?) Through his comedy he also seems to be making up for what Jason’s dad recognises as our pitiful indifference: “– The black c***’s still goat the anger but, son, that’s what we Scots huv loast”.

But the final words can belong to the auld man’s spiritual brother, the unrepentant Reverend Jakey Anstruther, as he enjoys his moment of oratorical glory at Kirkcaldy Crematorium’s chapel of rest.

– … Very few ministers, when ye get them on their own, will admit tae believing aw that Christ-wis-the-son-ay-God garbage, eh [Jack] snaps in scorn. – Wi aw huv tae go along wi this Hans Christian Andersen-Lewis Carroll shiteworld view to appease the brainless elements, but maist ay us are educated enough tae ken that’s jist wee bairns’ nonsense. Besides, it wis the hoorin thit finished wi me n the Church, no a disbelief in some moanin-faced auld hippy!

Hmm.

– Think aboot this county, a place what gied the world capitalism, and yit wis one ay the first places tae realise that capitalism wis shite and steadfastly opposed it… Ma Goad will be seek tae f*** ay hearin the same voices askin um fir a new car or hoose or speedboat, or tae endorse another f***in’ barbaric war for eyl!

We don’t give stars at the SRB, but if we did I would award four out of five, for four topnotch stories plus one perfectly acceptable.

Like AA rosettes for something extra-special, they’d be red stars.

From this Issue

Bridge Builder

by Douglas Gifford

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