Book Review: 'Dead Men's Trousers,' By Irvine WelshIrvine Welsh catches up with Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud — now middle aged and gone their separate ways — for what he says is the last installment in the Trainspotting saga.
" — Aye, Franco say, then eh admits. –Played aw that DMT stuff doon. It wis f***in wild but I didnae want Renton tae ken. Him and Sick Boy thegither: it eywis annoyed the f*** oot ay ays when they went on aboot drugs, f***in drugs, f***in drugs aw the time. A mean, take the c***s or dinnae; but dinnae f***in talk aboot them twenty-four/seven!"
Yeah, Irvine Welsh is back.
I mean, never really gone, right? Not with, like, a dozen books to his credit. So more apt, perhaps, to say that his most famous creations are back. The OG trainspotting crew: Begbie, Renton, Sick Boy and Spud. They already got a prequel (Skagboys), a sequel (Porno), a spin-off (The Blade Artist), and now this, Dead Men's Trousers, which Welsh himself is calling "the grand finale of Trainspotting."
That's bittersweet if you're a fan — happy that there's one more romp for the pride of Leith, sure, but sad because it's (allegedly) the end. But really, it's time. It's due. And DMT, though it has some problems — though it is absolutely 100% showing its snarling, wheezing age (in good ways and bad) — is a surprisingly fitting send-off. Someone dies by the end of it. Lots of someones, actually, but one that really matters. A copious amount of drugs are done. That language — that rock-mouthed, mushy, dense Scottish radge slang that made Welsh's name back in the day — works the same as it always has. It's musical, propulsive, both brilliant and maddening, sensible only when your eyes are half focused; when you hear it rolling off the page rather than trying to read it straight. That bit at the top there? That's Franco Begbie, putting the capstone on all criticisms of his creator. Breaking the 4th wall just a touch. Saying what we've all been thinking all these years. I mean, the drug stuff? Sure. Do it or don't, but do you have to talk about it so much, Irvine?
It's buried deep, that line, but it is the logical answer to Trainspotting's original "Choose life" riff. It is the old man's grouch. The survivor's impatience with those who just can't stop blabbing about their trauma. It's the ending the series deserved, got, then plugged on for another hundred-odd pages of blood, death, cocaine, middle-age and regret.
But first, there's the four, right? Begbie is out of prison and a successful artist with a house in L.A., a beautiful wife, two daughters. Renton is rich(ish), a globe-trotting manager of DJs, living on Ambien, ching and vodka — a high-functioning half-junkie trying to make amends with all his mates for the bad things he's done to them in the past. Sick Boy is running an escort service in London (natch). Spud is a jakey — a street-beggar with a dog named Toto (after the band, not the movie) and the same sweet and doomed streak he always had.
These are grown men now. They haul their baggage and carry their mileage of guilt in their faces. They've got nothing to do with each other when we catch back up with them, have gone their separate ways, into hiding or on with their lives. And then Renton crosses paths with Begbie in the least likely of places: the business class section of a Heathrow-to-LAX flight.
And what follows is ... messy. When he's at his best, Welsh spins a story of four men broken by addiction and betrayal; old friends who've shared their youths, somehow lived through them, and just can't quite seem to let go. On the verge of middle-age, all of them are sad specimens who stumble only occasionally into moments of cognizance and self-awareness. It's to Welsh's credit that he gives none of them any kind of sudden forgiveness or moment of redemption that doesn't come with a thousand strings attached and a baggie of coke in the pocket because these are not good guys. Never have been. And never will be, no matter how loudly they shout (or whisper or weep) about the mending of their ways.
And if that'd been the whole of the book, it might've been great. Might've been. But Welsh being the writer that he is — having sat through years with these idiots on his shoulders, blathering on about tits and hoors and skag — that could've never been the whole of it.
So instead, there's a subplot about sex tourism and another about an illegal kidney, another about getting the clap, another about Hibs finally winning the cup. There's a whole choppy b-plot about Begbie and an L.A. ex-cop who thinks he's a serial killer, plus a murder by sword, and a whole lot about the international art-and-EDM scene.
And while some of those could be considered bits and pieces of the actual plot, it quickly becomes hard to tell as the book pinballs around the globe with these four constantly bumping into each other, getting tangled up in each other's ridiculous scams and schemes. It all does eventually come back together, but by the end, what could've been a fitting, apt, even startling counterweight to Trainspotting has been weighed down with so much awkward sex, so many grown men on drugs and so many antic, unlikely capers, that the great idea Welsh had at the beginning has been lost.
That once upon a time we were all young and dumb. That some of us were lucky enough to survive it. That fewer still got to walk away whole. And that those who can't are doomed to live out their days like these four Leith heads — pretending at youth, at vigor, at life, when really all they've managed to do is grow old despite their best efforts to the contrary.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphiamagazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.