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Adding a Little Grit to Modern Novels

Books: Irvine Welsh forges new literary ground by chronicling the decay in Scottish ghettos--and taking a working-class view.


In Irvine Welsh we have one of the rawest writers to appear on the scene since the Beats of the '50s, the New Journalists of the '60s and the Realists of the '80s.

His gritty style is so new--a sort of literary hip-hop--critics have been stumbling over each other to offer a cultural context for his work ("voice of the ghetto," "poet laureate of the chemical generation," "the chronicler of the ecstasy generation") and to compare him to someone familiar (William Burroughs seems to hit the keyboard most).

Welsh, 37, is an up-to-date documentarian of inner-city decay, modern morality and depression-ridden coming-of-age. His style is physically detailed, phonetically literal and internally logical. "I think what you can't make up is that cultural context," he says. "I like to feel as if I'm kind of immersed in the culture."

But one thing makes Welsh stand out even more: He's Scottish. His youth terrain revolves around the ghettos of Scotland--a new heroin hot zone for Europe.

It is ironic, in a way, that it takes a Scotsman to show us the depths of urban life, the logic of drug abuse, the reasons for criminal being and even the politics behind a new generation of youth culture. That's what Welsh does in "Trainspotting," his first novel out now in paperback from W.W. Norton and soon to be released stateside as a motion picture from Miramax (directed by Danny Boyle, it opens coast to coast July 19).

"The modern novel seems to be very much rooted in this middle-class, self-conscious literary tradition," Welsh says in a phone call from his native Edinburgh, where he's visiting from his new home in Amsterdam. "When I first started writing I thought it wouldn't really appeal to anyone because the audience I was writing to didn't really read books."

His working-class point of view might be a fresh addition to the American bookshelf. "In America, when so many young writers are coming out of Ivy League colleges, they're writing from a position of relative comfort," says Steven Daly, a Scots author and journalist based in New York. "That's why there's such a relative immediacy to his stuff here."

The success of "Trainspotting" in Europe both as book (it has sold several hundred thousand copies) and movie (the buzz of the Cannes Film Festival, it's the second biggest box office hit in British history) has made Welsh a taste-maker. "In the same way that somebody can take hold of the public cultural imagination in the way Quentin Tarantino has done in America," Daly says, "that's what Irvine Welsh has done in Britain."

Welsh has already emerged as a thoughtful voice about drug culture, both doubting legal double standards and touting psychedelics: "They'll always be there."

"Trainspotting"--named for the sport of watching trains, but perhaps metaphorically referring to the vein-spotting of opiate addicts--documents the party-hardy, couch-surfing, pub-crawling lives of a cast of youths-on-the-dole and their attempts to self-destruct, mainly via heroin. ("Ye see the misery ay the world as it is," Welsh writes, "and ye cannae anaesthetise yirsel against it.") The plot moves through the eyes of a handful of hooligans--Rents the smartass, Begbie the bully and Sick Boy the womanizer--as they try to make a quick buck (gambling, drug dealing, welfare fraud) so they can stuff their veins with liquid death, travel to London on holiday or, better, move far far away.

Despite its working-class milieu and high readability (if you can get through the Edinburgh street dialect), the novel employs the most sophisticated of literary techniques. Welsh uses point of view like a good club deejay slices from song to song: The narrator becomes each main character chapter by chapter and takes the reader into the most intimate corners of life--even the bathroom.

"I'm interested in the whole idea of physical writing," Welsh says. "I think fiction is too cerebral."

Welsh seems to play to the attention this all brings to him, becoming a chameleon of identities, shifting around like his own narrative.

He says he's 37. The police in Glasgow, after arresting him recently for a little beer-inspired rowdiness, report he's 44. One day he's a working-class kid from the Edinburgh projects ("When you got out, you were aware you had a working-class accent," he says. "I went to one of the crappy schools in the city.") The next day we discover he holds an MBA from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

One day he is coy and reluctant about his drug history ("There was a time when I thought things were spinning out of control," he says), the next he plays to the bad-boy writer role, partying hardy.

And while the structure behind "Trainspotting" is intricate, Welsh says his storytelling is rooted in his time writing reports as a work-a-day cog for the local government in Edinburgh.

"I didn't have any formal training to write," he says. "I was sort of an impostor, because so many people I know who are writers have gone to writers groups for years. I didn't have any of that."

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