Scottish Surreal

Review of The Acid House by Irvine Welsh. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994, 304 pages
[first published in Studies in Short Fiction, 1995]


A shorter Welsh lexicon to begin: nowt? "nothing" (of course); masel is myself; fitba, football; ootay, out of; wisnae wasn't; nawe, and all; goat, got; puff, life; gaunny, going to; when eh kens that every cunt'll ignore um until eh speaks; when he sees that every fellow, etc.

In this follow-up to his celebrated novel, Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh wrests a blistery and nervy Joycean haiku from his phoneticisms. One wispy section of the story, "Sexual Disaster Quartet," for example, casts a man's sexual history into a brief scatological scrawl: "Rab's nivir hud a ride in eh's puff; perr wee cunt. Disnae seem too bothered, mind you." Not every line in The Acid House crackles with such pink and new relish or such great ear for living speech, but a sense of the newly imagined clings to nearly every story, most brilliantly when the demotic, the drugged, the ironical, and, sometimes, the surreally flamboyant all come together to form a rough and fierce naturalism.

Welsh is most at home with working-class Scotsmen in Edinburgh, London and on the continent who live in vibrant stalemates with heroin addiction, dead-end jobs (or joblessness), or romantic blague. Indeed, a large portion of Welsh's genius lies in creating narrators whose blear-eyed, frightened, raging self-regard turns rockingly funny. In the best stories narrators obsess in rich, clotted streams about the violence they have casually opened doors onto or accidentally participated in, the twisted families, diehard football fans, and the sociopaths they live near; the thick, twitchy, irascible, verbally murderous hooligans that they suspect they may (to their own amusement) be turning into.

If his world has a grim sociological texture, Welsh's language, best spoken aloud, is thrillingly alive. In "A Soft Touch" a self-deluded Scotsman named John recounts his romance with Katriona, who left him in mid-pregnancy even while her terrifying brothers stashed heroin in his flat: "No hash or nowt like that; wir talking aboot smack here . . . Ah could've gone doon. Done time; fuckin years ah could have done. Fuckin years for the Doyles and thir hoor ay a sister." The adrenaline idling in John's voice here is key to whatever meaning the story has: his idol is fate lightly eluded and John palpably brightens to a fresh encounter with it at the end as Katriona walks into his pub again.

Everywhere, narrators gleam with similar hostile lyricism over their appalling themes. Whether sexual humiliation ("Eurotrash"), "fitba" ("Wayne Foster"), or a grandmother's habit ("Granny's Old Junk"), Welsh is a master of the scuzzily, darkly hilarious. Where humor, horror, and surreal whimsy mix the writing can be dizzying, as in this unphotogenic episode in "The Granton Star Cause" in which a football player, transformed into a blue bottle fly, journeys to his parents' home:

His father was clad in a black nylon body-stocking with a hole at the crotch. His arms were outstretched with his hands on the mantelpiece and his legs spread. Boab senior's flab rippled in his clinging costume. Boab's mother was naked, apart from a belt which was fastened so tightly around her body it cut sharply into her wobbling flesh, making her look like a pillow tied in the middle with a piece of string. Attached to the belt was a massive latex dildo, most of which was in Boab senior's anus. Most, but still not enough for Boab senior.

At his least interesting Welsh cloaks his stories merely in sensation. The acid trip in "The Acid House," for example, is recreated in playful boxes of prose like those of Welsh's contemporary, Alasdair Gray. But the best stories make for complex pleasures. In "A Smart Cunt," a loafer named Brian spends his workday at the "parks" masturbating, shooting up and reading biographies of black radicals. (Like other narrators, Brian sees himself, the essential drift of his life, in anti-establishment terms; Welsh's anatomy of economic decay is another matter.) Fired for drug use, Brian spends Christmas with his sometime friend, Blind Cunt, who his other friend, Roxy, kills in a "radge" fit. Another evening Brian watches his stoned and unconscious mate, Ronnie, receive oral sex from Denise, a cross-dresser. And so on. His life is a lonely, funny hell. Yet near the end of the story (and the collection), Brian awakes after another night of chaos to stumble on a case of letters from his mother, who wrote to his father for years from Australia, begging to be put in touch with the children. Brian wonders what ever happened to her:

I copy down the address and phone number in Melbourne onto a piece of scrap paper. This is total shite. This is another load of shite to get through. There's always more, always more of this fuckin shite to get through. It never ends. They say it gets easier to handle the older you get. I hope so. I hope tae fuck.

In that last sentence is a whole perilous world view, and how you read it will likely determine the way you take every story in this stunning collection.