It’s been almost 20 years since Trainspotting gave us our first hit of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie. Porno delivered an update on their progress ten years later. And now, with Skagboys, Irvine Welsh takes us back in time to the days before the lads lost the plot.
Mark Renton is a Schopenhauer-quoting, straight-A student at Aberdeen University. When most of his old mates are unemployed in Thatcherite Britain, he works as a joiner in the summer break to save money to InterRail with his gorgeous, loving girlfriend, Fiona. Mark gets his highs from Northern Soul gigs, where he might dabble with speed, but he’s just as likely to look scornfully at the Scousers cooking up smack in the corner. This worries him, though. He just might be turning into yet another superior, insipid student.
Pedants could point out that, in Trainspotting, Rent Boy had no friends at university and that he’d been forced to leave mid-way through his first year. But it’s easy to forgive the inconsistencies since the extra details in Skagboys provides a deeper insight into these fondly familiar characters. Renton is ambitious, desperate to leave Leith. Sick Boy is the scheming schemie, cruelly manipulative and utterly self-serving. Spud remains compassionate despite society’s determination to leave him deprived. And even Begbie has a soft side, gifted with a singing voice that would, as they say, bring a tear to a glass eye. It all makes their steady decline more tragic, deserved, and inevitable.
The style is typical of Irvine Welsh’s work; a variety of voices, usually with a Scots dialect, present the different perspectives. Welsh probes the personalities of his characters, and tests their motivations on almost every page. This makes for a stronger story. The coherent plot is tied together with the threads of each narrative, and decorated with hints of conflict to come. A passing remark from Tommy, for example, as he watches Lizzie McIntosh struggle with her big art school folder, seems insignificant until he sees her again, dozens of pages later.
Skagboys is set at a time of recession, cutbacks, high unemployment, and when Alex Ferguson manages the team everyone wants to beat. The parallels are obvious, as is Welsh’s warning of repeating past mistakes and disaffecting another generation of young people. I just wonder if he needs to reiterate it at such length, and from so many points of view. And why he uses the word discomfit so much. Really, I’ve never seen that word appear so many times in one novel.
Any Cop?: It lacks the originality, sharp twists and stinging imagination of Trainspotting, but Skagboys engages on a more personal level, invoking feelings of almost parental concern, a passive observer, powerless to prevent the unavoidable end.