Liquor and Drugs: My Venture Into the Writings of Irvine Welsh

Cue Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life while the camera zooms in on a pair of Adidas as they hit the ground running. In a few moments, the camera pans up and we see a stick-thin Ewan McGregor running from the cops for an unknown crime with his famous monologue that begins,

"Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f—— big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage…” and ends with, “But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?"

This is one of my favorite movie openings of all time.

Trainspotting was released in theaters in 1996, and I saw that movie approximately 72 times at Liberty Hall after it opened. (OK, it was probably closer to four times.) I was 20 years old at the time, and although I hadn’t exactly been sheltered in my upbringing, seeing those boys from Edinburgh (specifically the district Leith) living in squalor and trying to maintain some semblance of a life while strung-out on heroin was mesmerizing. And scary. And strangely romantic. But mostly mesmerizing. The absolute spectacle of it, brilliantly directed by Danny Boyle, drew me in- as did the incredible soundtrack and the acting chops of the (then mostly unknown) cast.

Trainspotting 2 is being released in the states on the seventeenth of this month and I plan to see this one 72 times as well. Boyle has brought back the original cast and what looks to be another memorable soundtrack. In preparation for the film’s release, I have immersed myself in Irvine Welsh’s work and have emerged (relatively) unscathed.

Irvine Welsh, author of the Trainspotting trilogy (which includes Trainspotting, 1993; Porno, 2002; and Skagboys, 2012) is not for the faint of heart. His writing is gritty, profane, and perverse. Think of the most hideous scenario involving sex and drugs your brain can come up with, and Welsh has most likely written it down in one of his books and made it even more heinous. He often writes in a thick, Scottish accent (depending on who’s speaking) which takes some getting used to, but hearing that accent in your head is part of the fun.

Here’s an example from Spud in Trainspotting: “Every time ye git it thegither tae make a comeback, thir’s jist a wee bit mair missin…. Yip, ah’m jist no a gadge cut oot fir modern life n that’s aw thir is tae it, man. Sometimes the gig goes smooth, then ah jist pure panic n it’s back tae the auld weys. What kin ah dae?” See? Fun! And, like Shakespeare, (yes, I just compared Welsh to Shakespeare without irony), once you get into the groove of the language, it becomes easier to understand.

The books are best read (and were best written) in the order they were published. The crown jewel of the trilogy- and the one you should read first- is TrainspottingIt is the first in the series and the first book ever written by Welsh. The story follows Mark Renton who, although horribly flawed, tries to live by some sort of moral compass. He’s a junkie and a thief, sure, but he recognizes good in other people and tries to bring that out in himself when he can. Mark is made damn near charming by Ewan McGregor in the film, which can make the shift from film to book somewhat jarring.

The characters in the book are infinitely more disturbing. One of the most frequent criticisms of the film is that it glorifies heroin addiction. Maybe this is because of the gorgeous cinematography, the directing, or the cast itself. The film’s objective is not to glorify heroin addiction, of course. But it looks pretty, and the script is funny at times, which threw some critics off. How can these heroin addicts be attractive and hilarious? The lesson, of course, is that there is no one “face of heroin.” Addiction doesn’t care what you look like or if you’re good at a one-liner.

The book, on the other hand, could never be mistaken for something that glorifies addiction. It portrays an experience filled with desperation and depravity. The reader finds a city in the midst of an AIDS epidemic and a government that doesn’t care.  Yes, it is funny and satirical, but there is no glorification here. The novel is dark- Maybe it’s the lack of Iggy Pop in the background.

Porno (upon which the film Trainspotting 2 is loosely based) is a worthy sequel to Trainspotting, even though it is one of the most vile books I have ever read in my life! Welsh gets deep into the development of his characters here. Some of the guys have sobered up, some find love, and some are even more monstrous than they used to be. It’s 10 years later (20 years later in the film version), and the gang decides the quickest and easiest way to make some money fast is to film a porno.

This novel belongs to Sick Boy (who is out for revenge after being ripped off by Renton) and Spud, who, still unable to shake his addiction, thinks he’s up to the task of writing a book about the history of Leith. The reader quickly realizes he’s not, of course, and there’s a deeper sadness as we see Spud struggle, unaware of the toll his drug has taken.

Skagboys, although a prequel, should be read last. If this had been my first introduction to the series, I probably wouldn’t have finished. It takes us back to when Mark and Sick Boy were just out of high school. We see them at the beginning of their addictions and some choices they make that lead them there. It shouldn’t be disregarded, but the book is lacking. The characters in Trainspotting are only in their early to mid twenties to begin with.

Skagboys takes us back just a few years. There are no major character shifts, no epiphanies, no real questions answered. And Welsh introduces too many characters that fans of Trainspotting and Porno know won’t continue on. I would have loved for the book to have been set even five years earlier to really get a feel for the family lives of the characters. As it is, it feels like a long exposition that isn’t necessary.

In 2013,Trainspotting was voted Scotland’s favorite novel of the past 50 years in a poll run by the Scottish Book Trust, despite the morally questionable characters and the self deprecating picture the book paints of Scotland; (one of Renton’s famous lines from the movie is, “Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are COLONIZED by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonized BY.”)

The Scots love the book and understand its importance. The film has become a cult classic all over the world, and although sequels can often be disappointing, especially when the original is so revered, this Kansas girl will be quite chuffed to wait in the queue for Trainspotting 2 to open.

-Sarah Mathews is an Accounts Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.