Books: A moral at the bottom of it all

FILTH by Irvine Welsh, Cape pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
"MY GENITALS are hot and tingling," confides the anti-hero of Irvine Welsh's latest, "so I head off to the cafe bog with my Sun and thrash off to Tara from Portsmouth, the image of Estelle's receding arse complementing Tara's smallish but solid tits. I spurt in double quick time. I then give my sweaty hole a good rubbing with the bog paper and my arse a good clawing."

Edinburgh cop Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is one hell of a guy - promiscuous, semi-alcoholic, cocaine-sniffer, racist, misogynist and misanthropist. Assigned to a case involving an African diplomat's murdered son, he rants openly in the office about "stiffed nig-nogs" and "coons". He calls women (when they won't have sex with him) "flustered dykes" and (when they will) "ten a penny polisman's fucks".

Called to a burglary, he casually robs a pensioner of a treasured possession simply because the "auld c***" got on his nerves and he fancied the "sport". When he catches a 15-year-old girl with Ecstasy, he blackmails her into giving him oral sex and walks away "leaving the wee slut to soak up the distinctive curry, Guinness and spunk atmosphere". Hardly surprising, perhaps, that he believes that "the twisted but undeniable sexuality which is part and parcel of the complete dominance over another human being" is what makes "poliswork such a satisfying career".

Meanwhile, at home, wife and child have left him and, when he's not extorting sex from minors, he "pumps", "fires" and "spurts" his "muck" into the despised vaginas of despised wives of colleagues and acquaintances. Though he burps, farts and stinks (no one to do his laundry and he can't work the washing machine) we are asked to believe that these women find him a seductive prospect.

And believe it we do, for, whether or not one derives enjoyment from his narrative, the protagonist of Welsh's wretchedly ugly tale is utterly convincing. He succeeds at his "games" because he's so plausible. Male colleagues - secretly admiring of his machismo - are pleased to drink with him. The women he pleasures himself with wait - stupidly, patiently - for commitment. He laughs at them all. This corrupt, amoral, diarrhoea- afflicted homicide cop is a stupendous, horribly believable creation - a fragment of the worst part of reality, blown up to dominate and brutalise our vision.

But, despite all its boisterously dirty, perfectly misjudged horror, Welsh's fable borders on the priggish. He creates this extraordinary monster (pushing boundaries in a way which is at once revolting and vaguely exciting) and then he runs scared. He decides he's got to explain.

Under it all, what we have here is a too emphatically, too unsubtly, moral book. Welsh reveals his attitude to his protagonist too early on, killing all suspense, and, oddly enough, exposing the novel's weakness. And, despite the punchy brutality of some of the darkest passages, a poker-faced, Salvation Army morality marches in and invades this tale. There's a strong sense that we are being encouraged to pull back - nose nipped, eyes averted. The undercurrent of pain, of depression and anxiety and loneliness is too ostentatiously woven in. You wait a touch too smugly for Robertson's come-uppance.

So the justifications, when they come, are melodramatic and tacky, their emotional weight far too self-conscious, their sentimentality fraught with Issues. You hoped for something shaky and anarchic and - hey presto! - you find a social worker is writing the story, forgiving all in the light of childhood trauma.

I found myself thinking of all the rather less guessable, more shadowy and upsetting misogynists in recent fiction. Bastards that - unlike this Baddie with a Bad Childhood - you can argue hotly over, losing sleep and friends in the process. There's Roth's alarming Mickey Sabbath and, in an entirely different way, the self-deluding narrator of Kureishi's Intimacy, both - oddly enough - masturbating into women's knickers. These men are upsetting because you can't quite get a handle on them. Their attitudes are profoundly bothersome, but it's their humanity that most unnerves. And neither are handed a pile of excuses on a plate.

Much about Welsh's novel is explosive and admirable. He takes glorious and laudable risks with current taste, political correctness and public squeamishness. But his filthy cop could really do with losing his forked tail. Write a perfectly repulsive character and you assert that the world is black and white and it's not. It's the grey bits that are the most chilling.

[Postscript: London, and presumably other cities, are currently covered in flyposters advertising this book. Does Bertelsman, a publishing conglomerate which measures its profits in zillions, really need to resort to this illegal and vandalising form of advertising?]

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