As embarrassing as it is to admit, I had neither read nor seen Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting until early 2016 when I picked up a cheap copy in Waterstones on Princes Street.Drawn by the hype, the reputation, and the striking front cover – a human skull imposed upon a glossy white background – I decided it was time to introduce myself to this iconic novel.
After a week of compulsive reading, I couldn’t believe that I had waited so long to be drawn into this dirty, gritty and ultimately arresting world. Consequently, when I picked up Michael Shand’s Jimmy this, Jimmy that, drawn by the black glossy cover and its portrayal of four outcast boys in Edinburgh, I approached it both with caution and a marked sense of eagerness, keen to see if the legacy of Trainspotting continued in the hands of a new generation.
The plot is simple enough. Four pupils at an Edinburgh high school, led by the Begbie-esque ringleader Jimmy, are roped into seeking revenge on the person who “grassed on” Jimmy’s dad, leading to his arrest and incarceration. Told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who switches between stories of his current life as a married thirty-something and his life at school as a member of this gang, we are given insight into Jimmy’s brutality and intimidation tactics as well as the characteristics of the other members: Noggin, a secret boffin, and Specks, a habitual thief with a hard home life and a relentless wish to please Jimmy. At least, this is the plot for about a quarter of the book. After a false accusation, a bloody scuffle and a shift in loyalties, Jimmy drops off the radar for the rest of the book and instead we find out about lives of each of the different gang members, every one of them overly influenced by their brutish leader.
It is evident that this book uses Trainspotting as a template, even down to the nicknames given to the four boys. However, where Trainspotting is genius in its episodic nature, Shand’s novel comes across as rather clunky and unfinished with one plotline moving into another in a seemingly unrelated and unintended nature. Avenging Jimmy’s dad moves into the narrator’s romantic pursuits of rape victim Tiny, which then moves into an examination of Specks’ life and secrets, and so on. There is little continuity in the book and this leads the reader to wonder what story – or whose story – they are supposed to be reading.
In addition to this, the novel is littered with grammatical errors – the phrase “throwing back vodka’s like water” springs to mind – and suffers dreadfully in places from overwriting, giving the impression not only of a first draft, but of a writer simply trying too hard. Is the clock on the wall really “bored with its duty of reminding us how predictable life is”? When Jane, the narrator’s wife, becomes annoyed at his attempts to align himself with her discomfort and exclaims “we!?”, does he really need to tell us that “[t]he exclamation mark before the question mark is a clear sign she’s distressed”? Or that, when Tiny reddens as a result of his affections, he could see a “kindness and vulnerability in this blush”? Shand needs to give his readers some credit and trust that they will be able to work out the subtle hints he is giving without feeling the need to explicitly spell it out for us.
This is not to say that the novel is without merit. For all the stylistic blunders there are some lines which stick in the mind, most notably “[y]ou always knew when [Jimmy’s] dad wasn’t inside; just had to check his mum’s face for bruises”. Shand covers some relevant and important themes in the novel: domestic abuse, rape, class issues, bullying, friendship and masculinity are all touched upon, and rightly so as it is important to acknowledge and discuss these issues in order to dispel the stigma which unfortunately surrounds so many of them. The only problem is that there is not enough time in the novel to explore each of these issues in the detail they need in order to make a truly lasting impact.
In short, Shand makes a brave attempt to explore the issues of youth and classism among young people in Scotland, and for this he must be commended as there is a real lack of working class representation and stories in literature. Unfortunately, if you are going to write about four working class boys in Edinburgh, you are almost always going to be writing in shadow of Irvine Welsh, and I don’t believe that Shand has managed to fill those shoes just yet.
Rachel Rankin recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in Scandinavian Studies and English. She publishes personal essays on culture website Prancing Through Life, and has reviewed film for the University of Edinburgh student newspaper.