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A Little Drug'll Do Ya : TRAINSPOTTING. By Irvine Welsh (W. W. Norton: $13, 349 pp.) : ECSTASY: Three Tales of Chemical Romance. By Irvine Welsh (W. W. Norton: $13, 276 pp.)

August 18, 1996|Charlotte Innes | Charlotte Innes Once worked for D.C. Thomson, a Scottish newspaper company. She is a regular contributor to the Book Review

Every now and again a work of fiction accidentally brings into focus something that has been lurking foggily on the edges of our collective psyches. Suddenly the book is not simply a work of art but a cultural icon--the expression of a prevailing mood or moment in history. For a critic, whose touchstone must always be the question, "Is it art?," groping a way through the snowstorm of hype surrounding such literary events can be a real mind-twister. For the artist, being an icon can sometimes get in the way of creativity.

The latest hot literary phenomenon is "Trainspotting," a first novel by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh, which the Scottish alternative magazine, Rebel, Inc., hyped as "the best book written by man or woman," one that "deserves to sell more copies than the Bible."

A fast-paced, tremendously good-humored, expletive-laden evocation (in local dialect) of the youthful Edinburgh drug scene and its attendant poverty and violence, "Trainspotting" has been a cult classic in the United Kingdom for three years, especially among students. It has also been a sell-out play and a box-office-breaking film. The paperback version is currently hitting the bestseller lists in the U.S., alongside universal raves for the British movie. And Welsh's subsequent works, a drug-themed short story collection, "The Acid House," and "Marabou Stork Nightmares," a novel about the mind of a man in a coma, along with "Trainspotting," recently held all top three spots on the Scottish bestseller lists. Hard on the heels of these books are the drug-related novellas in "Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance," published in Britain in June--to disparaging reviews, to be sure, but still lapped up by youthful readers.

These sudden popular literary thirsts are inevitably stoked by a bottom-line-minded publishing business. But they are also the sign of something more profound. Of late, British fiction has been dominated by the colonial school (Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Kazuo Ishiguro), something of a reaction, perhaps, to the ingrained white, middle class-itis of British letters. The current broad recognition for Scottish literature--especially for Welsh, Booker Prize-winning James Kelman and Janice Galloway, 1994 recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters' highly prestigious E.M. Forster Prize--is surely part of the same yearning for something fresh.

What's seductively new about Welsh and a growing band of compatriots is that they're giving literary voice not only to Scottish working class youth but to an entire disaffected, unemployed, drug- and music-obsessed generation. The way Welsh tells it, these guys see drug-taking as a viable alternative to working or marrying and having a family--a slightly different route to staving off the sense that life's basically "boring and futile" and that "society cannae be changed tae make it significantly better."

In a manifesto of sorts, one character declares it's better to take drugs than choose "mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting on a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing [expletive] junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away [expletive] and [expletive] yersel in a home, a total [expletive] embarrassment tae the selfish [expletive] brats ye've produced. Choose life. . . . Well, ah choose no tae choose life. If the [expletive] cannae handle that, it's their [expletive] problem."

Of course, this rebel attitude is at least as old as the parable of the Prodigal Son. And Welsh is certainly only the latest exponent of what one might call British bad boy literature--from the anti-establishment, anti-heroic angry young men of the 1950s (Kingsley Amis, John Wain, John Braine and Stan Barstow) to contemporary misanthropes like Martin Amis and Will Self, who thumb their noses at everyone in sight.

But Welsh's raw, bleakly funny drug addicts are also rebellious in a uniquely Scottish manner. Though Welsh occasionally writes in third-person standard English for some authorial distance, he mostly lets his characters--Rents, Spud, Sick Boy, Begbie and the rest--tell their stories in their own colorful language.

In fact, their exuberance and humor, their apathy and pain, are the only story here. There's no lofty judgment-calling. (And this is surely what struck a chord with British youth.) If Welsh has a message, it's simply this: Drugs can give you pleasure--heroin in "Trainspotting" and ecstasy in "Ecstasy"--a pleasure that is all too hard to find in life where boredom and pain are the norm. "Take yir best orgasm, multiply the feeling by 20, and you're still . . . miles off the pace," Rents says of heroin. But then you have to pay the price.

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