Sympathy for These Devils

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 Drug addicts, pimps, whores, misogynists, hoodlums… all the usual suspects inhabit the stories in Irvine Welsh’s new collection.

The unappetizing title of Reheated Cabbage, a collection of stories from Irvine Welsh, suits its unappetizing characters. The first story, “A Fault on the Line,” offers one character who, when his female partner gets her legs chopped off by a train, wonders only if they’ll still be able to have sex. The collection goes on to introduce: a gay basher, a misogynistic hoodlum given to insults and blows, a racist pedophile whose role model is a pimp who beats his “hoors”—and, Welsh being Welsh, a good dose of the drug addicted.

The main characters of “The State of the Party,” Crooky and Calum, stoop to Marianna-trench lows. On the hind end of an acid trip, they pump their mate Boaby up with so many drugs that he dies; then they drag his body around town, putting makeup on him to fool the cops, letting hoodlums kick in his face while they roll underneath a car for safety. Finally, they abandon his body in order to shag two female strangers. Yes, these are characters you love to hate.

They aren’t bad characters shifting toward goodness, or even despicable characters that get their comeuppance; Welsh’s characters are simply mired in loathsomeness. He doesn’t do redemption. At best, a crack in the façade reveals some minuscule glimmer of humanity; at worst, the characters triumph and beat down whatever decency and goodness dared challenge them. The one exception is “Catholic Guilt (You Know You Love It),” in which the gay basher is treated to a predictable punishment in an afterlife that is as hokey as it is humorous. But “Catholic Guilt” is a fable, and the majority of these realist stories don’t traffic in retribution.

Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh

Most of these stories were first published earlier in Welsh’s career, back in the swashbuckling drugdom of Trainspotting, before the more moderate tales of The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. The earliest came out in 1994, the latest in 2000. They’ve been collected now because, as Welsh points out in the acknowledgements page, most of the “Scotsploitation or drugsploitation” anthologies or journals that originally published them have gone belly up. Longtime Welsh fans will be accustomed to the heavy dialect in which his characters often speak, but new readers should get a Parental Advisory sticker: “Warning: Thick Brogue.” In some places it’s harder to wade through than The Canterbury Tales or A Clockwork Orange—but persistence eventually trains the brain to unravel the phonetic spellings. To use the second paragraph of the book as an example (since the first has ten expletives in seven sentences): “Bit it wis her ain fault because she kent that ah wanted tae stey in fir the fitba this Sunday; they hud the Hibs—Herts game live oan Setanta. She goes, — Lit’s take the bairns doon tae that pub it Kingsknowe, the one ye kin sit ootside ay.”

Thankfully, Welsh alternates the first person stories with third person, so readers get relief like this:

The pub smells of nicotine and vomit. Someone puked over the carpet last night. They hadn’t bothered cleaning it, just rearranged one of the tables to partially conceal it. Our boy looks at Tanya’s bored face, studies where the acne has left her with scar tissue, that same acne that probably once made her grateful for male attention in spite of her streamlined curves, as if she was doing them all a big favour when it came to opening her legs. Then there’s the scar.

You can’t read far in Reheated Cabbage without encountering a four-letter word for a certain part of the female anatomy. Even when characters avoid profanity, they manage to offend in alternate ways: “Filled mair jars wi abortions thin yir granny hus wi jam” might be one of the most horrifying bits of dialogue since Chuck Palahniuk wrote, in Fight Club, the female pick-up line, “I want to have your abortion.”

But these are stories that grow on you. Past the dialect, and past the despicable characters, and past the brevity of the first four pieces, the longer stories linger until laughter and pity crowd out revulsion. Irvine Welsh is unmistakably a humorist, and his characters’ outrageous antics are funny. That is, they’re funny if your humor runs to the dark side. It’s difficult not to pity such characters: trapped under the weight of drugs, these denizens of the lower class have few aspirations and fewer reasons to hope. Certainly, laughter and pity are defense mechanisms for the reader—without them, you might throw the book across the room. But they’re also virtuous emotions. By getting past our initial disgust, we come to see these down-and-out Scots with a sympathetic eye.

John Matthew Fox writes about books at BookFox, Open Letters Monthly, the Quarterly Conversation, and Rain Taxi Review of Books. More from this author →