Being a lover of charity shops, bargain basements, scruffy, slightly dusty second-hand bookshops, and long-forgotten boxes in attics, it’s a rare occurrence for me to buy a brand new, hot-off-the-press, full-price book. Frankly the idea gives me mild heart palpitations, perpetual tightwad that I am. But I’ve been one of the many who fall somewhere between an admirer and full-on obsessive about Irvine Welsh for a very long time, and when Skagboys was released in the summer of 2012, it was all I could do not to camp outside Waterstones the night before it went on sale—not hardly because of its strangely enticing advertising campaign.
Even those who wouldn’t count themselves among Welsh’s enthusiasts have come to know his signature mix of gritty realism with charming and yet wholly terrible characters through film adaptations of his work that have been made over the years. Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Mark “Rent Boy” Renton won over those who couldn’t be bothered to decipher Welsh’s lavish use of Scottish slang, and a worldwide brand based on Renton’s “Choose Life” speech was born. Porno, the sequel, was very good (in my opinion arguably better than its predecessor) but failed to enter the public consciousness quite so effortlessly. And although I had high hopes, I could never have predicted how much I would enjoy the prequel to the Heroin Chic trilogy: Skagboys.
It is a testament to Welsh’s ability that the first and last books he has ever written should somehow still link together so fluidly. It helps, of course, that he has a personal connection to the subject matter, being born and bred in Leith and Edinburgh. Still, prequels can end up being romanticized versions of the first novel, with the author using the newer book more as a platform to correct the mistakes they made in the former rather than to formulate any real backstory. More than one critic suggested that since Skagboys is primarily put together from material that didn’t make it into Trainspotting, it’d be nothing more than an “a lashed-together series of outtakes and bloopers.” But Skagboys is nothing of the sort; Rents, Sick Boy, and sweet addled Spud are the same as ever—only here they are pre-skag and still naïve about a world that will leave them jaded and vicious in a few books’ time.
Described as “basically about how Renton and Sick Boy went from being daft young guys just out for the buzz on drugs to total junkies” by its author, Skagboys is a warning to those who find parallels with the characters within it against the all-consuming power of drugs. Renton is once again the primary narrator, and he is so convincing in his constant self-assurance that what he’s doing is normal that you almost don’t register how completely unreasonable it is for a boy who liked a drink to become a junkie trying to break into a factory. Learning more about his history helps us understand why Rents is how he is: angry, bitter, and yet not completely without tenderness, albeit a clumsy kind that seems to do nothing but land him in more trouble. We hear about his disabled younger brother, whose death more-or-less tears his family apart, putting strain on any hopes of finding salvation there in his later, heroin-addled years. Most intriguingly, we find out about his time at university, and how he did once seem to be a promising student with a girlfriend, aspirations, and a future away from Leith all mapped out. Somehow Skagboys manages to surprise me when this all goes to pot, even though having read Trainspotting I knew there was no other way for it to go—which I like to think is a show of Welsh’s skill rather than my own forgetfulness.
Sick Boy, in all his sleazy, charming glory, is as horrible and endearing as he ever is, but in this novel we begin to understand how he displays so much charisma while also mentally undressing and tossing you aside. The Scots-Italian background vaguely mentioned in Trainspotting is explained further, and it becomes a spot-on metaphor for his half-aggressive bully and half-purring Lothario persona. He is the antithesis of the boy that your mum thinks you should be with, but he’s the boy that you really want to be with, and he’s probably the boy that your mum really wants to be with as well. Sick Boy makes your skin crawl, and towards the end of the book he shows himself to be so ruthlessly cruel it almost beggars belief that he could possibly be seen as attractive, and yet he somehow is. In a nutshell, that’s what he’s all about. You hate him and hate him and hate him but deep down, you know you love him—everybody does.
As for Spud: Spud is the personification of why I love Skagboys so dearly. He is such a useless sweetheart, a cat-loving criminal with a conscience and no common sense. Although the tale for the others is one of a downward spiral, Spud’s is more of a plateau. He turns to drugs because there is nothing else for him. He isn’t particularly well-educated or knowledgeable about the world. He’s got a really big heart, but that will hardly help you in Thatcher’s Britain. His particular idiosyncrasy for calling everybody “catboy” is one I have always found unexpectedly touching, and in general his odd sense of morality and duty towards vulnerable creatures, whether they are old ladies, animals, or suicidal girls, has always stood him apart as the most lovable character of Welsh’s books.
In essence, I love Skagboys because however deplorable its protagonists are, I really do want them to succeed. I want them to turn their lives around, get clean, end up fulfilled and well out of Scotland. I’m rooting for it from page one, which, due to the nature of it being a prequel, is as useless as watching Titanic and hoping it will all turn out okay. And yet Welsh forces me into doing it anyway. The fact that Trainspotting exists means that all hope that Skagboys inspires is necessarily false hope, and that’s what makes it such a good read. Any book that can fool you into thinking that there is a chance of redemption when you know there is none—that can make you hope for a “happily ever after” even though you’ve read the “after” and it certainly isn’t happy—is one that is worth reading.
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