Thee Avid Reader: Irvine Welsh’s SKAGBOYS

With Skagboys Irvine Welsh – prolific Scottish author, playwright and underground taste-maker has once again returned to the world of his beloved Leith boys to give us a prequel to his 1992 novel Trainspotting.

Now, two years ago or so when I read that another of my favorite authors, Bret Easton Ellis, was returning to do a sequel novel to his debut Less Than Zero, I was slightly suspicious. Don’t get me wrong – I read Imperial Bedrooms and loved it, thus squashing my suspicions (as I knew Ellis would). However, in a world where almost everything has been based on pre-existing material for what feels like aeons* the unfortunate fact is that any return to pre-existing material is suspect, regardless of perceived good faith. That’s just the way it goes. Fortunately, much like Ellis, what Irvine Welsh has done is to strengthen my resolve to continue to have faith in the authors that I love.

It’s not as though Welsh is a one note piano. Not even close. Since Trainspotting‘s popularization via Danny Boyle’s feature film hitting theatres in 1996 (the novel – basically a collation of short stories – was published in 1993) Welsh has written a wealth of material, all of which – in my humble opinion – is great. And out of that material 2002’s Porno may indeed be a sequel to Trainspotting, but it is also a sequel to 2001’s Glue, the novel that is to me Welsh’s most magnificent work. Welsh tends to write within a continuous universe he has created from his own days growing up in Leith, which despite his character’s determination to convey as a separate entity from Scotland’s beautiful capital Edinburgh, has indeed long been considered that city’s port. Glue clocks four lads as they grow up in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s in Leith and thus intersects the streets and at times the characters from Trainspotting. Yet Glue does not diverge more than in a neighborly fashion and remains very dedicated to its own host of characters**. Porno then brings these two sets of characters together in a series of absurd and, where one Francis Begbie is concerned,sometimes dangerous schemes. Skagboys thus far (I’m about halfway through its 548 page grandeur) is truly a prequel to ‘Spotting, as it chronicles Rents, Sick Boy, Spud and several of their other mates’ slow spiral into absolute heroin addiction.

And it isn’t pretty.

I enjoy Welsh’s writing so much that I often forget just how dark and disturbing his work can be. Without veering into the fine line of spoiler territory I can tell you that as the book opens we find Mark Renton back in Leith, on summer holiday from the Uni in Aberdeen and working in a prefabrication shop, where we’re introduced to he and his co-workers’ Monday morning shite contest (it is exactly what it sounds like). We’re also treated to some unflinchingly brutal (yet somehow still hysterical) Begbie violence; we recieve very detailed and graphic accounts of vein tapping and popping and we finally meet Renton’s youngest brother Davie who suffers from “not only chronic cystic fibrosis but also muscular dystrophy and extreme autism”. In  perhaps the most disturbing passages thus far we learn that in an effort to grant his sick brother some degree of comfort, young Renton used to jerk him off every Friday night while Davie drooled to images of an attractive newscaster who seemed to spark his fancy. The truly disturbing nature of this relationship is of course the ambiguous nature of the act – when Mark confesses all of this to the love of his life he does so under the best of intentions – granting his wee brother, whose life Mark contemplates as absolute living misery, a small glimmer of pleasure. However Mark’s confessional is itself framed in such a way as to allow us to witness him ponder his own sanity and motives, much like we the readers and his girlfriend are all surely doing as well. As Mark puts it, he is forced to finally question whether or not he is, “on some level, a sick cunt, or at least misguided.


Welsh is one of our greatest living contemporary authors, far transcending the post modern style he was somewhat known for in the nineties when – similar to William Faulkner, William S. Burroughs and, later, Mark Z. Danielewski – he played with not only the linear beats of his prose but also its relationship with the pages it was printed on. However Welsh is not for the squeamish, and I don’t just mean in the violence and depravity departments. The level of social commentary that informs his worldview, and the nuance with which the man presents it, wrapped in some of the most uncompromising prose I’ve ever encountered, will make his work antagonistic to some (to say the least). To others, like myself, it makes it irreplaceable and an absolute joy to read, even as I find myself shuddering in disgust at times. But that, my friends, is literature in its most perfect form: life is not a box of chocolates and when you learn to see the opposite of beauty as its own special kind of beautiful you begin to find you stand on that much stronger ground in this world. Welsh, like Alex Garland, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemmingway, and fellow Scot Grant Morrison, write literary inoculations for the world we live in and I for one, have developed a lasting and admiring love for his work.

Here’s to many more Mr. Welsh, I raise my glass in your honor sir!!!


* Okay, it’s getting better. But still… battleship?

** Wee Gally – oh the pain!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

2 Responses to Thee Avid Reader: Irvine Welsh’s SKAGBOYS
  1. […] I added an installment to this column that talked about Irvine Welsh’s then newest novel, Skag...
  2. Sean-Paul Thomas Reply

    Hi Shawn,

    I just read your websites review of Skagboys by Irvine Welsh, who is one of my favorite authors.

    My name’s Sean-Paul Thomas and I’m a relatively new author from Edinburgh who is just trying to establish myself right now. I have one book published so far, while my other books are all self published.

    I’ve written a new book, a kind of dark, edgy, black comedy satire, set in an Edinburgh Cafe during next years referendum in Scotland. Where a lot of weird, wonderful and quirky characters come and go throughout the day, sharing stories from their crazy screwed up lives. While some just want to voice their radical opinions on Scottish Independence.

    The book was released on December 17th and I was wondering if you would have time in your busy schedule to review or spotlight the novel at some point over the next few months.

    It’s a 50/50 with the Scots/English dialect. So I think it might appeal more to fans of Irvine Welsh and other Scottish authors who use Scots dialect in their writing. Right now I’m just trying to find a select target audience for my work and get it out there.

    Here is a brief Synopsis.

    ‘WARNING ‘May contain crude Scots dialect’

    Did ye ken that it’s referendum day in Scotland oan the 18th of September 2014?

    It’s also new ‘Pro UK Union’ chef, Richard’s, first day uv work at the Edinburgh auld town cafe. Where tae his great displeasure, he’s already been left oan his tod tae run the evening back shift by his sexist, womanising boss Brian, wi only the pretty and fiery, Pro ‘Scottish independence’ student waitress Toni, tae assist.

    Throughoot the shift Toni and Richard are visited by many weird, wacky and wonderfully humorous customers. Some uv whaim are jist in fur a wee banterous blether, sharing their radical political opinions wi any bampot whae’ll listen a damn, efter voting on Scotland’s historical day.

    Other customers though jist dinnae give a flying hoot aboot the Independence malarkey and jist want tae huv a quiet bite while sharing their ain crazy, freaky stories from their screwed up lives.

    So fae young teens discussing the extreme lengths some boys will go tae in order tae get their sexual kicks tae Non Educated Delinquents discussing a new Scotland efter Independence. Including the rebuilding of Hadrian’s wall, strict border controls and new anti English road layouts. Wi aw new Gaelic road signs tae make it even harder and more frustratingly annoying fur any English tourist tae find their way aboot. Arguments and opinions begin tae get more and more heated and radical the closer the referendum results are tae being announced.

    There is also the blossoming relationship between the handsome Chef Richard and cute waitress Toni to contend wi tae, when they’re both no up in each others faces, defending their ain beliefs and political stances.

    So if ye enjoy yur average run uv the mill stories like ye enjoy a nice wee safe cup uv coffee likes, wi Milk and jist the wan sugar ken. Noo is the time tae take it completely bitter black… wi jist a wee pinch uv salt fur gid measure, ken whit ah mean.

    Warning ‘May contain crude Scots dialect’

    If you would like to read the book or even just check out some sample chapters, then I can send you a copy in any file format you desire.

    Thanks for taking the time to read my e-mail and I hope to hear from you again soon, even if just to say no thanks.

    Cheers and kind regards

    Sean-Paul Thomas

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