Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards," notes Mark Renton, the emaciated, erudite, heroin junkie in Irvine Welsh's Skagboys. It should make good meta-fictive sense, given that this is Welsh's long-awaited prequel to Trainspotting. Yet there is a peculiar sense here that lives are being lived backwards, not forwards. Welsh's drug-addled crew – Renton/Rent Boy, Simon/Sick Boy, Danny/Spud, Frank/Begbie, Tommy et al – first emerged almost 20 years ago in Trainspotting. Their stories were followed up in the 2002 sequel, Porno. Now, the backward tug in Skagboys takes us to the beginning, before this Edinburgh fraternity of anti-heroes succumbed to heroin, or "skag".
Originally published in 1993, Trainspotting became a "vernacular spectacular" with its raw Scots dialect, funny scatology, scabrous humour and shocking subject matter. The drug subculture that had stained the outer suburbs of Edinburgh exploded into Welsh's narrative. The result resonated so deeply that we, like Welsh, didn't want to let the story go. A hit film was made. An iconic poster and soundtrack album followed. Renton's anti-bourgeois, junkie philosophy became a counter-culture manifesto for the nihilistic Nirvana generation. "Choose life" he sneered, recasting the supposedly well-adjusted as the dysfunctional majority: "Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye've produced. Choose life. Well, ah choose no tae choose life."
We left Renton as he betrayed his mates and prepared to face a new future in Amsterdam. Now we return to him in the early 1980s, as he and his fellow "schemies" stand on the pre-heroin cusp of adulthood. It can't have been easy for Welsh to colour in the lives of characters created nearly two decades ago, and the endeavour could have resulted in unintentional pastiche. So it is an achievement that they retain a sense of authenticity.
Renton begins as a university student at Aberdeen, in love with his girlfriend, Fiona, who regards heroin as a loser's game. Seeing someone taking "skag" at a party early on in the book inspires contempt: "Stupid cunt, turning intae a fuckin zombie oan that shite when thaire's aw this fun tae be hud..." Then his disabled brother, Wee Davie, dies, and a curtain of mourning falls over his life. A familiar ensemble of characters including Sick Boy, Spud, Alison, Tommy and Begbie,create an orchestra of first-person accounts mixed with third-person narration. The strength of these chapters lies in the intensity of their stories.
Alison's mother dies of cancer after protacted years of illness; the teenager Maria gets hooked on heroin after her mother is imprisoned for benefits fraud. The stories are filled with pain, sadness, and the bewilderment of young lives going wrong, derailed by disease, death and poverty. The suffering drives them to their tipping point towards desperate pain-relief, and heroin.
The battle between Renton's growing love of the drug, and love for Fiona, is excellently played out. Their university passion unfolds tenderly, yet as Renton becomes drug-dependent, he senses she is losing the battle, and that he must split up with her as quickly and as clinically as possible to fully commit to a drug that will leave no room for anything, or anyone, else.
Until this moment, he has stood at an intersection between two lives: as a heroin junkie and as an ordinary young working-class man trying to make good. Her departure cuts him off from the latter, and we see a foreshadowing of the "choose life" monologue of Trainspotting as he rehearses his reasons for dumping her: "She's talked abut us finding a flat together next year. Then graduation, nine-to-five jobs and another flat wi a mortgage. Then engagement. Then marriage. A bigger mortgage on a house. Children. Expenditure. Then the four Ds: disenchantment, divorce, disease and death. For all her protestations to tae contrary, that's who she was."
Where his family life was a backdrop in Trainspotting, here it is rigorously, painfully, depicted, both before and after the fracturing grief of Wee Davie's death and his drug habit. In some respects, Renton appeared younger in Trainspotting, perhaps because Skagboys offers greater emotionally depth and insight.
While Renton's story provides a powerful emotional trajectory, several other characters show less development. They are characteristically themselves – Sick Boy is the promiscuous "sexual aristocrat" that he was in Trainspotting; Begbie is the "psycho"; Tommy is the good guy. But they become nothing more, treading water in their roles rather than gaining dimension. The most frustrating emotional stasis is embodied in Sick Boy. We are given brief glimpses into his family life – his bullying father and meek mother – but his emotions are not explored in any depth, though he is given plenty of narrative space. We only know that the sex is as much of a drug for him as heroin, that he is alpha predator whose deeper feelings may be too well sealed-off from himself to be glimpsed by readers. Ironically, it is some of the more peripheral characters, such as Maria and her descent into addiction and forced prostitution, who offer the moving stories.
In Trainspotting, the ravaging effects of heroin on the libido were clear to see, but here, the drive to have sex and the drive to get high are still in brutal competition. The sex scenes are eye-wateringly graphic, and variously funny (Sick Boy's anal experience with a woman wearing a dildo) or shocking (Maria's rape at the hands of the man she holds guilty for her father's death, who has paid to sleep with her). and Welsh is extraordinarily adept at writing them.
In other ways, the success of Skagboys comes from its similarities to Trainspotting. It offers more of the same, though excellently constructed more of the same. Some scenes bear too much familiarity: the toilet scene from Trainspotting in which Renton delves into an overflowing, stool-infested toilet to retrieve some tablets, is replicated, in spirit, in a scene in which a character delves into a rubbish dump to retrieve a puppy, finding himself covered in faecal smears in Skagboys. There are trips to London in both books (Skagboys's London vernacular has a hint of the Artful Dodger at times), and there are stints in rehab, although in this prequel, the rehab section is far richer and more satirical.
Trainspotting was written with the same third- and first-person variations, but the prequel shows greater experimentalism and ambition in its form. Renton's eloquent, emotional and intellectually angry diary excerpts from rehab are cleverly circular, appearing at the beginning (and recounting the bloody confrontation in the "Battle of Orgreave") and again towards the end.
Welsh frames personal fates and outcomes against short, page-long factual interludes that summarise the social reality of the era, citing unemployment figures, union tensions, draconian policing and rising HIV infection in this woebegone part of Scotland. This is a time when "hundreds of thousands of young, working-class people in the UK had a lot less money in their pockets and a lot more time on their hands," he writes. It is these passages, sometimes powerful, sometimes heavy-handed, that makes Skagboys a historical novel, a prequel, rather than the desperately contemporary novel that Trainspotting became.
The latter's success lay not just in its characterisation and drama but also in its timing. It captured an era that had barely passed with all its devastating fall-out. Skagboys lacks the political urgency of its predecessor, and its success lies simply in its absorbing, energetic writing. Welsh's descriptive style is masterful – crude, violent and poetic by turns – but it is dialogue for which he has the Midas touch. Skagboys, like Trainspotting, Ecstasy, The Acid House and the upcoming Filth, is a book that is perfect for the screen. Its banter, outrage and razor wit sing off the page. A film, one suspects, isn't far off.