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The Way of All Flesh

FILTH. \o7 By Irvine Welsh (W.W. Norton: 396 pp., $14 paper)\f7

September 20, 1998|KURT JENSEN | Kurt Jensen often reviews books for the Boston Globe, the American Scholar and the Philadelphia Inquirer

During the course of his narration, Bruce Robertson, whose voice carries "Filth," Irvine Welsh's third novel, provides a running account of the music he listens to, mostly while driving his Volvo about Edinburgh, less frequently while at home. A sampling of the Robertson playlist looks like this: Deep Purple's "In Rock"; Ozzy Osborne's "Ultimate Sin"; Led Zeppelin's "Houses of the Holy"; and the Michael Shenker Group's "Assault Attack," "Rock Will Never Die" and "Built to Destroy."

Then there's Michael Bolton. Bolton sings, on a "compilation tape I made, 'How Am I Supposed to Live Without You' . . . and I sing my heart out." This is clearly not the musical menu of a man with eclectic tastes, and instead is an indication that Robertson has a hairline fracture in his soul, through which Bolton's snuggly croon leaks in among all the Metal. Rending the gap in the course of the novel shows a matured Welsh at his best and proves more interesting than discovering the reasons for the fault.

Most American readers first encountered the writing of Welsh in "Trainspotting" (1993). His first novel assaults the inflected rhythms of the native tongue with a Scottish slang that, with patience, furnishes a habitable aural space. In "Trainspotting," Welsh imagines an often brutal place, roamed by the horse-warped whose imaginations contract to encircle the new fix. Here, the man groping for his junk in an unflushed toilet bowl gags only as he rinses his arm clean at the faucet. Here also is the remarkable intimacy of a young girl's startled vision of a father risen from the dead; with such combinations, the repugnant in Welsh is often paired with the familiar, making his work impossible to disown. In this and subsequent works, Welsh's language was a glottal melange of primitive-sounding utterances and postmodern slangs, reduced in the loll of a chemical daze to a spat-up clot of enchanting sounds.

Welsh has retained this distinctive locale in "Filth," but it reads differently. With this novel, the prose is largely cleansed of lingual obstacles; it reads more breezily and aspires higher than he can manage the slang to say. In the attempt, Welsh risks his known strength for the securities of the conventional novel, in which the author develops a character as if setting a mechanical trap. Plot events and other people meander near, and the trap is sprung near the close; events reach a climax, and our picture of how this character works is completed. Welsh completes and explains Robertson by hauling in childhood trauma and neglectful parents, an unimaginative contemporary cure-all that explains too much and completes too little.

Welsh's often-captivating novel opens and closes with stingingly specific deaths and is most powerful at the midpoint between them. Nominally, "Filth" is a murder mystery that kicks off with the first death, and the stabilizing, low-maintenance frame of an unsolved killing frees Welsh to write his version of what makes and drives a life. This is the fascination around which "Filth" circles, whose pages pit the unstable character Bruce Robertson against the incompleteness of a murder. If Welsh is faithful to the form, something has to show up to conclude the frolic here. Eventually something does, and Welsh has been better faithless.

The quality of the story's framing deaths supplies an index to the progress of the novel. The first murder is of an unidentified African man and is rendered in Welsh's particularly antic carnality. A flourish of "skooshes," brain spatterings and the involuntary excretions issued with the final throe demonstrate Welsh's unique, and persuasive, take on literary candor. The first death comes by a blow to the head; the second is a suicide, a blow within the head. This movement, from murder to sucide, is the making, and unmaking, of Bruce Robertson, detective inspector, Edinburgh and Lothians Police, mid-30s, left alone by his wife and daughter, sinking from the start.

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