Wednesday, 25 April 2012

"Skagboys" by Irvine Welsh

Year of Publication:  2012
Number of Pages:  548 pages
Genre:  Fiction, drugs, social realism, dark comedy

Scottish writer Irvine Welsh made a big impact on the literary scene with his debut novel Trainspotting in 1993, which soon became a sizeable cult success.  The book was adapted as a hugely successful film, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Ewan McGregor which was released in 1996.  Welsh later said that he had ambivalent feelings about the immense success of Trainspotting, feeling that it had prevented him from doing other things.  However in 2002 he published a sequel to Trainspotting called Porno which catches up on the characters some ten years after the events of the first book.  Now he has returned to the well once more with a prequel set about four to five years before the events of Trainspotting.

Edinburgh, Scotland, 1984.  Mark Renton is charismatic, intelligent, head over heels in love with his beautiful grilfriend, and is the first member of his solidly working-class family to go to university.  All the indications are that he has a bright future ahead of him.  He spends his weekends hanging out with his friends:  Ruthless and manipulative Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson who is obsessed with women and will stop at nothing to indulge his urges; sweet, gentle and naive Danny "Spud" Murphy; violent psychopath Frank Begbie; athletic, health concious Tommy Lawrence; sleazy Matty and compassionate but troubled Alison.
However, this is Britain under Margaret Thatcher, unemployment is rising, social unrest is everywhere and the traditional working class communities which Renton and his friends grew up in are rapidly disappearing.  Beset by family tensions and boredom, as well as a growing sense of nihilism, Renton joins Sick Boy and Spud as they start indulging in the heroin that is flooding Edinburgh.  Before long, their youthful experiments have blossomed into a full-blown habit, and the group enter the nightmarish, twilight world of addiction, as their lives become dominated by scheming and scamming any way to get their next fix.  There is also a new threat surfacing as the AIDS epidemic takes hold in Edinburgh's addict community.

This is a worthy prequel to Trainspotting, and in many ways improves on the original.  Whereas the first novel was more like a string of short stories linked by recurring characters and themes, this has a plot line and a narrative thread.  There is also a strong sense of anger in Skagboys ("skag" is a Scottish slang term for heroin) as it explores the political and social conditions which created the situation which the characters find themselves in.  As usual with Irvine Welsh books the story is told through a number of point of view charcaters frequently in a first person stream-of-conciousness style in phonetically rendered Scottish dialect (although occasionally it adopts a third person point of view written in Standard English).  The story is brutal, violent, bleak and angry but it is also frequently hilarious and at times unexpectedly moving and tender.  This is a fantastic book which is pretty much unputdownable, even if you have never read Trainspotting.  It is definitely Irvine Welsh's best book in years. 


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