by Irvine Welsh
A review by Laura Miller
It's easy to see why some readers — the ones not green enough to thrill to the notion of a profanity-choked novel about junkies — might be inclined to write off the fiction of Irvine Welsh on reputation alone. That would be a mistake, because Welsh writes some of the nimblest comedies around. His latest, Porno — a sequel to his 1993 cult favorite, Trainspotting — may require a strongish stomach and a robust tolerance for raunch. But it doesn't really belong to the "guided tour of squalor" genre so favored by those intense and tiresome guys whose favorite books have to be kept behind the counter at Barnes & Noble on account of they get shoplifted so much. His real predecessors are misanthropic satirists like Swift and fellow Scot Tobias Smollett (a 16th-century author seldom read today — and if you're squeamish, be glad of it). But Welsh, for all his scrofulous preoccupations, has more of a heart.
In its middle register, Porno is an expertly executed ensemble farce about the return of Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson to his hometown of Edinburgh — specifically the working-class neighborhood of Leith, where he takes over his aunt's pub and sets several schemes in motion at once. He devotes most of his energy to producing a purportedly "revolutionary" porn movie, starring, among others, himself; his old buddy "Juice" Terry Lawson, a gawky but exceptionally well-endowed local teenager; and Nikki Fuller-Smith, a foxy film student whose sexual bravado conceals a black hole of self-doubt. Eventually, Mark Renton, who ripped off Simon and two of their mates in a drug deal described in Trainspotting, gets in on the action as well. One of those betrayed mates, the terrifying Frank Begbie, a simmering cauldron of stupid violence, is just out of jail and looking to settle the score with Mark.
Welsh's characters are a pack of solipsistic misfits, screw-ups and scammers, forever in pursuit of daft projects and concocting improbable rackets, the intricacies of which Welsh weaves together to hilarious effect. The Trainspotting gang may be in their 30s now, but they're reluctant to grow up even as they bang their shins against life's limitations and disappointments. Basically, much of Porno is Seinfeld in Scotland and on hard drugs — and often it's just as funny.
That is, as I said, in the novel's middle register — but what distinguishes Porno from run-of-the-mill regional comic fiction (think of all those Southern novels invariably touted as "rollicking") is its upper and lower registers. In the former, "Spud" Murphy, another of the Trainspotting crew, goes in and out of recovery, trying to hold together the family that's slipping away from him. He's the only really decent character in the book: as Mark puts it, a "strangely vulnerable, but good-hearted man; but he's been so fucked up for so long it's like the essence of him is harder to find now, outside of the drugs...you do have to care about him, and he'll just fuck up and fuck you up again. He's probably caused, in his own way, more hurt than Begbie, Sick Boy, Second Prize and me all put together ever could."
You do have to care about Spud, and he will indeed break your heart. In one scene, trying to comfort his neighbor, a single mother in near-hysterics at the end of her fraying tether, he offers to help her wash her dishes — just about the perfect thing to do. Yet he can't get his head above water or body lastingly clean, and eventually, he's driven to provoking Frank's homicidal rage in hope that his wife and kid can collect on his life insurance.
In the lower register of Porno there's Frank, of course, but also a scene in which one of Leith's worst lowlifes abuses a destitute, sodden woman he picks up in a pub. Welsh pulls out all the stops in this scene, a real tour de force of degradation and disgust, and he cannily includes Spud as a witness, prompting the following meditation: "Like maist people in this world, ma nastiness is like a kind ay passive nastiness, a sortay nastiness by omission, by no daein anything cause ah dinnae really care aboot anyone strongly enough tae sortay intervene, except the people ah really ken [know]." (This passage, like a good bit but not all of "Porno," is written in dialect; it's not particularly hard to follow once you catch on.) This strikes deeper than Simon's flashy, high-altitude cynicism ("you've got two categories. Category one: me. Category two: the rest of the world. You can divide the others up into two sub-groups: those who do as I say, and the superfluous"). It's amusing to see Sick Boy's coke-fueled delusions of grandeur run aground on his own selfishness, but it's the tragedy of Spud that sticks with you. It's also what makes Welsh more than a bitter satirist — and certainly more than just another bad boy made good.