Irvine Welsh‘s latest novel, Skagboys, is a prequel to his infamous book, Trainspotting, and explores how the friends all became heroin junkies. It’s been a while since I’ve read Trainspotting (I’ve read it twice) but I remember the gist of it and the style. To catch you up: drugs, Brit-pop, drugs, raves, more drugs, sex, more drugs, death, more drugs, theft, more drugs, and one friend screwing over the rest. When Welsh was initially writing Trainspotting, it was much longer, with part of what became Skagboys. At the time, he wasn’t interested in how they became addicts, but recently, he began to wonder how that transition began.
Skagboys follows Mark Renton, Davie “Spud” Murphy, Sickboy, Tommy Lawrence, Matty Connell, and one of my favorite pyschopaths, Franco Begbie. Living and working in Edinburgh, they all begin to slowly lose their jobs. They smoked pot and took eckies (ecstasy) in the clubs and snorted coke in their leisure time. But as their spare time grows, so does their drug usage. It expands within the group, starting with Renton. He’s the only one of his group to get out of the schemes and go to uni. After his younger brother dies he goes to a party to buy drugs and does heroin because he doesn’t want people to think he’s scared to try it. And once he tries it, his friends follow suit. Welsh sets the tone for their drug usage and includes multiple “Notes on an Epidemic,” which explain the unemployment rate, the drug shortages, and the AIDS crisis.
Renton and Spud are sound guys who want don’t want to steal but think they don’t have any other options. The difference between them is that Renton is intelligent and self-aware. Spud is sweet-natured but only dreams of being a furniture mover, having a nice girlfriend, and going to the pub. Renton reads in his spare time, travels Europe over the summer, and is at the Orgreave protest with his father. He leaves the schemes on multiple occasions, when he goes to uni, when he travels, when he lives with his friend in London, and in the apartment he shares with Sickboy.
The sociopath is Sickboy—he’s good-looking, dresses well, is an expert flirt, and has an extensive vocabulary. Oh, and he pimps his under-age girlfriend out for money and drugs. He’s more dangerous than Begbie because he seduces everyone with his looks and language. He tricks people into doing things that they don’t want to do and in the end, they believe it was their idea.
The psychopath is Franco Begbie. The idea of having a Begbie in my circle of friends frightens me, but if I grew up with him, I wouldn’t grow out of him. The boys have known each other since primary school. Begbie scares the crap out of them but they don’t know how to get rid of him because he’s part of their history, their family, and their own identity. To give him up would be to give up a part of themselves. I have had friends wreak havoc wherever we go. I’ve had friends 86ed from clubs and bars. There’s been drunken fights and broken nights. Perhaps I’m not always sure how we got there but I love them and they’re my family.
Welsh brilliantly explains how Begbie became who he is and why he acts the way he does. And yet Skagboys is not about some poor sod who is a victim of his upbringings and surroundings. It’s about a group of friends who become junkies. Skagboys is not a moral tale, it’s a novel that’s funny, realistic, and addresses the relationship between friends and their self-identities.
Renton is a student who leaves the schemes. His friends think he’s too good to hang around them. He wants to be with his friends but he wants to go to school as well. The problem is that the two worlds clash. He’s a different person at school:
“Back hame ah was a waster; frivolous and fucked-up, always looking for some sort ay adventure. Getting wasted, screwin hooses, trying tae screw lassies. Here ah wis the opposite. Why not? It made perfect sense tae me. Why go away, jist tae dae the same shite that ye dae at hame? Tae be the very same person? Ma reasoning is ah’m young; ah want tae learn, tae add tae masel. . . Sitting in the brightly lit library, surrounded by books, in total silence, that was ma personal zenith.” (109)
Renton experiences this dual identity crisis throughout the book. “—Ah hud tae gie Begbie career advice oan fucking criminality at New Year. Me! That’s ma problem; I’m too fuckin poncy tae be a proper Leith gadgie n too fuckin schemie tae be an arts student type. My whole life is betweixt and between. . .” (295) His friends make fun of him for reading but Begbie tries to keep Renton out of trouble, acknowledging that he can get out and stay out of the schemes if he does well at school. But Renton falls in love with Fiona, a student. He realizes that their relationship is starting to mirror that of his parents’ and he feels trapped. He wants to destroy their life so he can be free. He uses skag as his escape.
Renton gets all his friends to join him, he claims it is an adventure before he returns to school. He drops out of school and ends up at home, selling his records for skag. He gets arrested for stealing from an old woman collecting money for an animal shelter. He ends up in rehab and writes in his journal: “What we wanted was to clean up, soas we could get back tae using at a reduced dosage. But we didnae want tae stop, fuck that!” (472)
Using multiple narrators, Welsh adds to the complexities of the dual-identity. While Renton is the main first-person narrator, Welsh gets inside each characters’ heads. Begbie’s moral compass is revealed when he beats a man suspected of molesting his own daughter while in jail. He discovers he beats the wrong man, but figures he’ll have a laugh about it later. Sickboy, who appears to be a bit of a waster, turns out to be a selfish, abusive, manipulative, low-class pimp. But we see women fawn all over him throughout the novel. It is only in his own narrative that his true sadism is revealed.
Skagboys is another brilliant novel about friendship and addiction and family. Again, Welsh’s language reads like poetry and his characters’ actions make sense in relation to who they are. He explores dual-identites through multiple narratives and journal entries. He leads us through 548 pages of heroin, thievery, sex, lies, murder only to leave us at the beginning of Trainspotting—they’re still junkies. And yet every page was worth reading and I’ll reread them again and again.