by Irvine Welsh
432 pages, Melville House
audio version read by Tam Dean Burn
Review by Pat Black
FOUR WIDOS AND A FUNERAL
Choose getting middle aged.
Dead Men’s Trousers catches up with Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie as their train prepares to stops at a destination few expected them to reach: their fifties.
Director Danny Boyle managed expectations about as well as he could with T2, the movie sequel to Trainspotting which caught up with the boys two decades after Mark Renton’s betrayal. The film sidestepped much of its source novel, Porno, and did a smashing job. Now, with Dead Men’s Trousers, Irvine Welsh presents an alternate-reality T2.
The four principals are well into middle age now, and three of them have, improbably, found success. Renton manages DJs, and earns enough money to be able to get a monkey off his back by refunding Sick Boy and Begbie after he ripped them off in Trainspotting, and again in Porno.
Sick Boy is running an escort agency in London, and doing well with it, though he doesn’t always succeed in his efforts to instil a sense of class in his operation. I’ve always wondered what a Masters was for…
Most intriguing of all is the missing piece of the puzzle. I’ve never read The Blade Artist, but know that it concerns Begbie following his rehabilitation and reinvention as a sculptor. He has an international profile, a gorgeous wife and kids, lives in a big house in Santa Barbara with millions of pounds in the bank. Celebrities want to make friends. This is what is known as an outside bet.
Most people who know Franco would think this idea was ludicrous – unless you’re Scottish, in which case it’s almost a true story. Begbie’s turnaround was surely inspired by Jimmy Boyle, a Glasgow gangland enforcer jailed for murder who found redemption through a controversial artwork programme in prison. Boyle published the best-selling book, A Sense of Freedom, and upon release from Glasgow’s Bar-L in 1982, he married a psychiatrist and became an internationally renowned sculptor. Last I heard, he was living in a humongous house in the south of France, and is presumably still laughing.
Next to this once-notorious character’s astonishing reinvention, Begbie’s story doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
The only one who hasn’t done anything with his life is of course Spud, who is begging on the streets of Leith when we meet him.
Following a chance encounter on a transatlantic jet, the four are drawn together as Begbie decides to make a cast of each of the boys’ heads, to mark the passing years.
Although the four have very distinct stories, Dead Men’s Trousers does have a few plot lines interlinking them. As in Porno, the fragmented structure of Trainspotting is gone in favour of something more linear.
Renton wants to pay his mates back. Sick Boy is tasked with finding his brother-in-law, who has gone missing, because of… Sick Boy. Meanwhile, Begbie has to contend with a rogue cop in LA, an ex of his wife’s, who knows about some unpleasant things dear Franco has done in the previous novel. Spud gets mixed up in a black market organ donation racket, with predictably disastrous results. After he leaves some meat unattended in the presence of his dog (didn’t something similar happen in Skagboys?), Spud is brought into conflict with the sinister Edinburgh gangster, Victor Syme.
The weakest storyline of the four is Renton’s. In between managing the petulant demands of his motley crew of clients, he picks up a venereal disease, seemingly after one night of weakness back in Edinburgh. He fears he has passed it on to a promising partner back home in LA. “First world problems” indeed, as Sick Boy sneers at him.
It shouldn’t be a spoiler to tell you that one of the four dies.
The marketing placed this bombshell front and centre, and it is a great big hook for casual readers as well as fans. From page one, Welsh plays with the idea that we’re well aware one of the four is heading for the crow road. It’s not so much a whodunit as a whosgettinit.
All four characters face mortal peril in their own individual stories. You sense Renton’s knob, and his irresponsible use of it, is going to land him in trouble. Plus he has a strange zeal when it comes to paying back Begbie, who insists he isn’t bothered about the rip-off from all those years ago. Plus interest.
Meanwhile, Sick Boy also draws the attention of Edinburgh brothel keeper Syme, a violent man who hatches a wicked plot of his own after he is inconvenienced by the hapless Spud. And Begbie has the rogue cop to contend with in the States, a man with a gun and a grudge.
Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything. I will say that I had a bet with myself on who I thought was going to bite the big one. Was I right? I’ll tell you at the end.
The big joke in Begbie’s case is that while the older iteration may be calm and considered, he is still psychotic, and only too happy to use violence wherever he sees fit. “You don’t mess with what’s mine,” he growls at one character.
Perhaps his art is the work of a Leith chancer, too – we’ve all entertained a suspicion that some of the most famous people in contemporary arts are quite simply at it. Dots? Squiggles? Abstract? What? When Renton sees some of the end product – clay moulds of famous faces, disfigured with a knife - he reckons Begbie (or Jim Francis, as he’s known in the art world) is still at heart a con man. “That isnae art!”
There’s a sense that the three successful ones are all frauds, in fact. Sick Boy is still a manipulative, devious man – the sh*t mate who would feel no compunction over dipping your pockets when you’re drunk, or trying to cop off with your girlfriend. He is still just about good-looking enough to get away with it, even as he heads into his fifties, but he’s still the last man in the room to realise that he’s just a Leith radge, and that’s all he’ll ever be. No amount of Sean Connery impressions, embossed business cards, verbose drug-fuelled rants about the modern world or, indeed, money, can change that.
Similarly, Renton’s chosen line of work, while lucrative, hints that he isn’t a hugely talented person. He gets by through flannelling his clients, skivvying after their every whim and massaging promoters’ egos. As one of his DJs notes, he seems to have forgotten that he first got into the business because he loved music.
Poor, guileless Spud is, again, the most honest, open-hearted of the four. As usual, he suffers for it.
Leaving aside their formative years, the one piece of connecting tissue left between the four of them is that they all f*ck up. Not just little mistakes, but huge, pavement-cracking ones. It is this propensity - more than debauchery, more than drug addiction, more than cynicism - that defines these four men.
FREAK OUT THE SQUARES
Classic Welsh preoccupations aren’t slow in coming out. His continual excoriation of family life and straight-shooters is apparent in his treatment of Sick Boy’s brother-in-law, the douce, Calvinist foot surgeon Ewan. Sick Boy spikes him with MDMA while they’re out for drinks on Christmas Eve back in Edinburgh, and the repercussions from this affect the rest of the novel.
Sick Boy indulges his selfishness and sadism with barely an afterthought. The subsequent unravelling of his sister Carlotta’s marriage is viewed with a sense of exasperation at the inconvenience of Ewan going missing. There is no question of guilt.
That said, Ewan’s subsequent behaviour, whether out of his mind on eccies or not, was the least plausible part of the book. Again, it shows Welsh’s contempt for squares. People who abide by the rules always get f*cked in his books. People with jobs, degrees, vocations, relationships, children, responsibilities. People who choose life.
Irvine Welsh’s readership, in other words.
Welsh’s female characters are sometimes viewed as a weak part of his game, and it’s true. But something in this criticism bothers me. There are a lot of prostitutes in this book, granted.
There are a few victims as well. And one or two angels. Many of the women encountered here are simply used and dumped. You won’t get anything like the same character beats that you get from the four principals. At best, women (such as Spud’s ex Ally) are seen through the prism of a drunken uncle at a wedding, passing on his approval to the rest of the tribe when wee Jenny decides to do something radical, like completing her education. “Aye! (slams down pint glass) That lassie hus done well!”
But Welsh doesn’t have to break out of his four main men’s heads if he doesn’t want to. He isn’t writing books by committee in order to satisfy the social constructs of the day. It’s his ba’, and he decides who plays. No-one has a go at Lesley Pearce or Sheila O’Flanagan for sticking with mainly female characters.
It’s a man’s world in these books, though. That’s becoming something of an acquired taste these days. I see the difficulty. But for what it’s worth, this central belt schemie found the quartet’s first-person thoughts and reactions to be absolutely authentic, completely genuine. Likeable? That’s something else entirely.
Similar to the Musketeers, Irvine Welsh’s not-so-fantastic four could be seen as discrete sections of one psyche. There’s Renton, the lad o’ pairts, a clever boy from the wrong side of the tracks whom you could easily see becoming famous for writing, say, gritty novels. Maybe this is why “Svengali to international superstar DJs” doesn’t seem like a good fit for him.
It might have suited Renton better if he’d been a philosophy lecturer in a former polytechnic. Lucky Mark? That would help Welsh explore one of his fundamental tensions as a writer, and, I suspect, as a person – the predicament of the well-read, articulate schemie. He never quite fits in with the intelligentsia who would dismiss him in a heartbeat over his background, but he never quite fits in with the underclass he came from, either; people whose first impulse when faced with a book would be to deface it. The perpetual outsider. Ironically, there’s even more scope for chaos in that scenario, and he would inevitably get himself into trouble with young women.
In Sick Boy we have the manipulator, the schemer, the weasel – no less clever than Renton, easily more charismatic and coercive, but his lack of conscience edges into sociopathy.
The dreadful tough guy chat your dad gave you probably went something like this: if you can’t fight, you better be able to run. There are two other directions you can take, though – you can be the “funny guy”, or you can be the flyman. Sick Boy is the latter.
Dead Men’s Trousers is easily Sick Boy’s book, though, as much as Trainspotting was Renton’s. Tam Dean Burn has the most fun with this character in his audiobook narration. Sick Boy is so wide he could be Glaswegian. He is not a nice man, but there is an awful lot to cackle at.
Begbie’s type is all too familiar – the hard man, living up to a hard heritage, an illustration of how toughness can be a lifelong ambition for some. Welsh has spoken of some spine-chilling moments when he’s been back in Leith, and people have accosted him in the pub with words to the effect of: “Haw. That Begbie yin… that’s me, isn’t it? Ye based him on me.”
That character’s turnaround is the most intriguing element of this book, but as we discover, although Begbie’s calm, he’s still mental. At one point, he carries out a breathing exercise in order to hold his temper, even as he is strangling someone.
Does he still hold a grudge against Renton? For most of the book, we are inclined to wonder – even as the rest of the boys unquestioningly accept the “reformed character” narrative.
Once he’s back in Edinburgh, though, Franco falls back on bad habits. There’s something toxic in the very air that changes his accent, his outlook, returning his default settings to factory mode, prompting recidivist tendencies. Part of us has been waiting for this. There are strange, violent interludes, before the man goes full psycho. When he kicks off, you’re reading a horror novel – or a bovver boy NEL nasty from the 1970s. Possibly Guy N Smith wrote it, under a pseudonym.
Violence is Begbie’s true art, and he revels in it. You might not…
And then there’s Spud, the peaceable, fun-loving dope, the unlucky one everyone likes.
Speculating how much any character is like their creator is a mug’s game, but most people tend to see Renton as the Irvine Welsh proxy. Interestingly, the author mentioned in a recent interview that when he was at primary school, he was more like Sick Boy – manipulating, putting other kids up to things without actually doing them himself. Maybe you have to be a little bit like that to be a writer? It’s what we do to people on the page.
I wonder how Welsh felt when Danny Boyle took things in a different direction – showing Spud as the creative one, having turned out a manuscript called “Trainspotting”, and by implication, identifying the author most closely with his goofiest character.
Mixed feelings, I suspect. Though there is a nod to this in Dead Men’s Trousers.
When T2 came out early in 2017, I remember thinking that Danny Boyle must have been kicking himself. Round about the time principal photography wrapped, in spring 2016, an epochal event took place in the life of Hibernian FC supporters like Trainspotting’s main characters, and Irvine Welsh. The Edinburgh football club won the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years, beating the artists formerly known as Rangers thanks to a last-minute goal in one of the best finals for years.
The coincidence was so strong that I felt sure Boyle would try to make some capital out of it in a reshoot, inserting Renton and Sick Boy into the events that day at Hampden Park. Either he resisted, or it all came just too late.
Welsh, though, has carte blanche, and much like David Gray rising to meet that corner kick in stoppage time, he plants his big baldy napper right on the opportunity.
I’m not a Hibs fan, but I have fond memories of that day. First of all, there’s the pure romance of it. Even Hearts supporters grudgingly admitted on under-the-line chat in internet articles that they had a wee smile to themselves when Sunshine on Leith rang out at Hampden. Secondly, it was another well-deserved slap in the face for Scottish football’s robber barons, “Rangers”. And, last but not least, my turf accountant offered me quite ludicrous odds against a Hibernian victory during normal time. 15/2? For a cup final? After Hibs had already skelped them a couple of times in recent months? So, as you can imagine I was a wee bit emotional when Hibs won it in the last minute.
This section sees Welsh going sentimental on us, but it would take the hardest heart, or hardest Hearts fan, to begrudge him this. It’s a celebration of friendship, with all four of the main men present at the match and basking in the glory of the day. They also take a tremendous amount of drugs. Improbably, Renton and Sick Boy drop eccies at just the right time, peaking just as David Gray gets his head on Liam Henderson’s corner kick. Arguably, only Juice Terry Lawson’s own “David Gray” moment could possibly rank above this.
DOORS AE PERCEPTION
Drugs are a permanent fixture in this book, but don’t dominate it. They’re so casually taken that you forget that people used to find the idea quite shocking. It’s like a set of curtains which have somehow clung to your wall for about a decade, so long in the tooth that they’re almost fashionable again; or your neighbour’s lairy tree, which you’re working up the gumption to complain about. It’s mostly ching on the menu these days for Renton and Sick Boy, reflecting their incomes, I guess. Someone else has a wee accident with ketamine.
Heroin is conspicuous by its absence. But a new player has entered the game.
All four of the main men take a DMT trip. Their consciousness is expanded accordingly. It is theorised (I should stress, I don’t think there’s clear evidence for it, and doctors have rubbished the idea) that DMT naturally floods our perception as our bodies prepare for death. This is thought by some to be the catalyst for visions of long-dead loved ones beckoning us away, or tunnels of light.
Whatever the truth of this, the boys are very impressed, and draw their own conclusions from what they hallucinate. Whether the DMT link is intentional or not, it signposts which direction the story’s going.
(Sees title… sees letters D, M and T… penny drops)
It’s not long after this that they all start stitching each other up again. Renton’s fervent wish to pay back his friends ends up backfiring in a grimly ironic way. It stirs dormant animosities and grievances. Along the way, as the plot lines resolve, there is a death.
Dead Men’s Trousers attracted some bad reviews, but for me it’s the second-best book in the Trainspotting series (bearing in mind I’ve yet to read The Blade Artist). Many of the episodes are simply bawdy jokes, complete with punchlines, but then that’s always been Welsh’s way.
The audio version is an absolute slam dunk – surely no author’s work was better suited to the form? I’d argue these stories work best when they are performed, rather than read to oneself. I would go as far as to say, I’ll never hold a physical copy of an Irvine Welsh book again.
It was fun, despite some black cynicism. Renton’s self-loathing in particular is so bleak it’s almost poetry. Apart from one grand-standing speech at a funeral, the book flirts with its political themes instead of delivering the kind of heavy-handed lecture we endured in Skagboys, and it takes its head out of the filth long enough for a quick breath of clean air here and there, unlike Porno.
It isn’t Trainspotting. It can’t be. Welsh didn’t try to write in the same style as that book, nor should he have. People feel an affinity with Trainspotting because, for some, it represents their youth. Even though it was filthy, we cherish it, and we want to tend the memory.
And that’s nostalgia – a very Scottish disease. Irvine Welsh is wise to steer clear of it. He is astute in allowing his voice to age as much as his characters.
However, there is a glimpse of light. While Welsh mocks the straights, he does, in the end, tip his hat to the idea of family. But not as we know it. Some ties aren’t defined by blood, but by the sh*t you’ve gone through together. Blood is thicker than water; sh*t is thicker than blood.
I surprised myself by responding so well to the boys’ mid-life depravities. I suspected I might hate them – that the constipated schoolteacher who lives somewhere in my genes would be piqued, as he was in a university tutorial many years ago. But I was entertained, and laughed a lot. Like Sick Boy, I cheerfully tossed aside all moral considerations.
It was like a long-dreaded reunion with school friends which actually turned out alright. As Renton says of Begbie, once he understands that dear Franco doesn’t want to kill him: “I realised that life had got boring without him, without that chaos. On some level, I’d actually missed the c*nt.”
In among the hilarity, there’s an acceptance that we’re all getting older, much like Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie.
This is no longer true for one of them.
As for my wager…
My reasoning was that the character we were most likely to lose would be the one with no interesting stories left to tell, rather than the dead cert.
I lost my money. I was wrong. But that’s not to say the dead cert crossed the line first.
You’ll have to read the book to find out who goes to the big banana flats in the sky. Or, you could cheat on the internet.