BOOK REVIEW / Meeting God down the pub: The Acid House - Irvine Welsh: Cape, pounds 9.99

WHEN Irvine Welsh's splenetic frenzy of a novel, Trainspotting, was published less than a year ago, the praise was swift and extravagant. The realism of his garrulous, in-your-face prose style stunned critics. His cast of junkies, psychos, prostitutes and thieves, itching for a fight or a fix, blasted open the cosy image of the classless society, and of Edinburgh as a city of Georgian terraces and cultural festivals. Even if most readers were in no position to judge the authenticity of Welsh's account, we could not doubt the reality of his depiction of Edinburgh as the Aids capital of Europe. Where the novel's plot and characterisation wore thin, the sheer vigour of its language, meticulously transcribed from the street, drove you on. It was a hard act to follow.

But The Acid House, short stories and a novella, demonstrates that there is much more to Irvine Welsh than the semi-autobiographical voice of an ethnographer. It shows him pushing the limits of his versatility, experimenting with form, style and structure, with typographic innovation, surrealism and fantasy, and always finding something new to say. For the most part, his brittle wit and unerring eye for the humour that can be drawn from absurd conjunctions of situation and character leaves you feeling utterly exhilarated.

Perhaps the best in the collection is the title story, in which a committed football hooligan on an acid trip and a middle-class, pregnant feminist on her way to hospital are struck by lightning. An exchange of identities takes place, and when the baby is born, it speaks in the abrasive, one-syllable idiom of the terraces. This proves a fascinating social experiment for mother, baby and the reader. It's a fantastic story, in all senses of the word, a pointed reminder that only in fantasy could two such remote social types ever integrate.

A similarly exuberant comic inversion takes place in 'Where the Debris Meets the Sea' which finds Kylie Minogue, Madonna, Victoria Principal and Kim Basinger lounging in a Santa Monica mansion ogling magazine pictures of Leith removal men. 'Phoah, cunt ye,' enthuses Victoria. 'Even through the shell suit ye kin see ehs tackle bulging ooot. Ah thoat, fuck me, ah'd gie ma eye teeth tae get ma gums aroond that.'

Elsewhere, Welsh returns to the bleak, smacked-out territory of Trainspotting. In 'Eurotrash', a Scottish junkie drifts around Amsterdam 'where all the scum get washed up'; in 'Stoke Newington Blues', he's in Edinburgh and London, listening to the self-pitying whine of a fellow addict describing what is probably an imaginary rape and grassing up a friend to the police. The anger in these stories is palpable, but Welsh has matured, and applied a fictive mixer to the adolescent venom of the earlier novel.

But he's still speaking about and to a younger generation. In 'A Blockage in the System', old working-class orthodoxies about the dignity of labour are satirised. With its petty hierarchies work, Welsh suggests, is for many people - especially those whom we patronisingly deem to be lucky to have a job - a necessary bore, to be tolerated between footie and the pub.

Not all these stories work, which is perhaps to be expected in so experimental a collection. In the more conventional stories, the influence of other writers - Roald Dahl in 'Vat '96'; Scott Fitzgerald in 'The Last Resort on the Adriatic' - weighs too heavily, smothering Welsh's own voice. In 'Snuff', for example, in which a video junkie records his own death, you feel you've read it all somewhere before.

But in the wry, Kafkaesque tale of Boab Coyle it's gleefully clear that Welsh is capable of turning this anxiety of influence to his own, brilliant advantage. In one day, Boab is chucked out of the football team, his parents' house, his job and his girlfriend's life. After he's arrested and beaten up, he meets God in a pub, who turns him into a bluebottle. 'That cunt Nietzsche wis wide ay the mark whin he said I wis deid,' God tells him. 'Ah'm no deid; ah jist dinnae gie a fuck.' There is ample evidence in The Acid House that not only does Welsh gie a fuck, he has an enviable talent for turning feeling and disgust into art.

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