While perusing the shelves of Princeton University’s Barnes & Noble this summer, I stumbled upon the Continuum International Publishing Group’s critical analysis of Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting.” Delighted that I had discovered the store’s last copy of the book, I made a frenzied rush to the purchase counter, my cultish obsession with one of Generation X’s greatest stories overwhelming me. I sped home to consume Robert A. Morace’s brief, but penetrating critique along with a large Scotch and water. But when I was finished, I was disappointed.
I was disappointed because Morace did not say anything I did not know about the phenomenon that is “Trainspotting.” I already knew that Irvine Welsh is the greatest writer the last decade has produced. I already knew that he is the spokesman for an entire generation born from acid house, postmodernism and heroin chic. I already knew that he somehow touched the lives of the alienated and the apathetic with strong Scottish burrs and excessive usage of the word “cunt.” Perhaps, the only thing that I had not realized, however, was why. But my ownership of the “Continuum Contemporaries” guide to “Trainspotting” didn’t help me one bit. For the answer to the question, I had to look at the language of text.
The harshness of Welsh’s Edinburgh vernacular and the candidness of his characters make his stories – “Trainspotting,” “Filth, “Glue” et al – more real than a shooter’s needle breaking a vein. No pussyfooting, no bullshit – just the reality of life in the projects of Leith. That is how Irvine Welsh manages to recycle characters, to deal with the same issues of football hooliganism, drugs, sex and more drugs again and again. Euphemisms do not exist in Welsh’s world, nor do empty promises about the grandeur of life. Pornographic it is not. Gritty? Hell yes it is, and you had better be able to accept the realities of life if you want to touch one of Welsh’s books.
Every time I read and re-read one of the Scotsman’s novels, a wave of arrogance inexplicably washes over me. Welsh’s stories are not esoteric, pretentious or even arrogant themselves; it’s just that every time I crack the cover, I know what awaits me, but more importantly, I know how to negotiate the profane Scottish dialect. I know to whisper the words aloud because sadly, my central New Jersey upbringing did not adequately prepare me to read blue collar Scottish grammar. But when I finally become acclimated to the language, I can see the stark beauty of an Edinburgh slum. I relate to the pain of addiction well and I can sense the loneliness lurking underneath street-smart exteriors; all because I have become fluent in Welsh-speak. Welsh’s tales are beautiful because I can see bits of my life juxtaposed with his Rentons and Spuds. Irvine Welsh knows my secrets because he understands reality better than any contemporary writer.
Not long after my discovery of the disappointing reader’s guide, I learned of his latest endeavor, which had, at that time, not yet hit the American bookstores. The release “Porno,” the quasi-sequel to “Trainspotting,” has given me yet another opportunity to grow even more acquainted with Welsh’s world of the very real. The ignorant condemn Irvine Welsh as a cynic, a purveyor of trashy literature, even as a misanthrope. These claims are so untrue it makes my head spin. His detractors are so obviously illiterate in realism. Welsh’s writing, as vitriolic as it is, always bears hope. Once again, this is due to his excellent command of the everyman’s language and his refusal to sell out. This, I believe, is what Mr. Morace missed in his analysis. Scottish history, socioeconomic theories, drug culture – they all mean shite to Irvine Welsh. The only things that count in his postmodern scheme are life and hope, pure and simple.
Neal Pais can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.