Author: Irvine Welsh
Publication Date: 6/17/96
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Blurb (GR): Irvine Welsh's controversial first novel, set on the heroin-addicted fringe of working-class youth in Edinburgh, is yet another exploration of the dark side of Scottishness. The main character, Mark Renton, is at the center of a clique of nihilistic slacker junkies with no hopes and no possibilities, and only "mind-numbing and spirit-crushing" alternatives in the straight world they despise. This particular slice of humanity has nothing left but the blackest of humor and a sharpness of wit. American readers can use the glossary in the back to translate the slang and dialect--essential, since the dialogue makes the book. This is a bleak vision sung as musical comedy.
This is why I love reading challenges - they allow me to discover books I would have never picked up on my own. Let's face it, would I ever intentionally seek a book about Scottish low-lives - junkies, thugs, and prostitutes? Don't think so. But alas, the fate threw Welsh's "Trainspotting" my way and I ate it up like hot cakes.
"Trainspotting" is a collection of short stories narrating scenes in the lives of a Skag Boys (skag = heroin) - Rents, Sick Boy, Begsbie, Spud, and various people around them - their families, lovers, drug suppliers, partners in crime, or victims. Mark Renton (Rents) is more or less is the protagonist, this is mostly his story, even though the stories are written from multiple points of view in 1st and 3rd person. The majority of them is also narrated in Scottish dialect, so some initial effort to understand is required.
The best thing about this book is that it takes you on a roller-coaster ride - it takes you from revulsion to uncontrollable boasts of laughter to tears of compassion. Considering that every other word in this book is a profanity, I think Irvine Welsh has talent.
"Trainspotting" starts off as a rather repulsive read - within the first 10 pages Rents is fishing out the drugs that he has just rectally ingested out of the filthy overflowing public toilet. The repulsive factor doesn't really go away as the story progresses, we are faced with psychopath Begsbie who is extremely abusive to everyone around him, including his girlfriends, or Sick Boy who is very popular with women and at some point becomes a pimp of a few of them, or Rents himself, who drunkenly has sex with a 14-year old girl or shags his dead brother's pregnant fiance in the bathroom during his funeral. The list goes on and on. But the thing is, in spite of all these depravities, Skag Boys are strangely relatable and, dare I say it, often likable. They are losers and addicts and criminals, but their emotional and moral struggles are real.
The book is, although very dark, at the same time hilarious, it is filled with Rents' sarcastic humor. This quote from the scene can give you a good taste of the writing.
Here Rents is held by his parents under the house arrest. They are attempting to get him off the heroin, Rents' mom is trying to feed him.
"The auld girl sticks us in the comfy chair by the fire in front ay the telly, and puts a tray oan ma lap. Ah'm convulsing inside anyway, but the mince looks revolting.
- Ah've telt ye ah dinnae eat meat Ma, ah sais.
- Ye eywis liked yer mince and tatties (potatoes). That's whair ye've gone wrong son, no eating the right thing. Ye need meat.
Now there is apparently a casual link between heroin addiction and vegetarianism."
In the latter part "Trainspotting" is no longer a repulsively hilarious read, it gets darker and darker, as we follow the fates of Rents' many friends, and it's not pretty - too many of them are dying - from HIV from sharing needles, from cancer, gangrene, heart attacks. Seeing this many deaths, 25-year old Rents attempts to kick his habit over and over again, but will he and his friends succeed?
I think "Trainspotting" is a remarkable read and I will definitely read more of Welsh's work. But is this book for everybody? Absolutely not. It is filled with human depravities, profanity, and written in Scottish dialect. This will turn off many readers. But if you are looking for a challenging (in many ways) read, give "Trainspotting" a try. You won't be disappointed.