When boys grow into men, roots give way to routes

<i>Glue</i> by Irvine Welsh (Jonathan Cape, &pound;12, 469pp)
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Glue by Irvine Welsh (Jonathan Cape, £12, 469pp)

Irvine Welsh is the last major writer in Britain who would ever give a monkey's for critical opinion. For one thing, he's too rich; for another, going by his recent CV, he would rather be a DJ. And it's not often that a press release is honest enough to herald a new book as a "return to form". So why is Welsh even bothering to sit down and write a boys-to-men epic set in the hard schemes of Edinburgh? Contractual obligation? Inability to write about anything else? Or, as Truman Capote once said, is this typing, not writing?

Here's the answer: because Welsh is brilliant at what he does, and nobody else does it as well. On Newsnight Review, the novelist Philip Hensher called Glue "as badly written as Judith Krantz". Yet his barb was truer than he realised. Glue is, indeed, the kind of novel that Krantz might well write ­ if she was trying to map the furious energies of working-class masculinity in the late 20th century, using a compulsive mixture of Lothians dialect, libertarian socialist theory, and an irresistible black humour. Which means that this is Welsh's most readable and memorable novel since Trainspotting, by a long white line.

For one thing, it's probably the finest work of Scots literature ­ that is, literature deliberately written in formal Scots ­ since McDiarmid's "A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle". The four Edinburgh schemies who make up the book each get chapters in their own distinct voices. For this Scottish reader, the effect is extraordinary: I've never read the distinct nuances of working-class masculinity so accurately described.

Funniest is Juice Terry, a "work-shy fanny merchant" who makes Sid the Sexist seem like Nick Hornby; the most haunting is Gally, the classic lost scheme kid, whose self- destructiveness and fatalism is reminiscent of the doomed murderer Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's Native Son. Carl and Billy are chips off the block of Renton in Trainspotting (who makes an early 1970s appearance here). These are the meta-louts: not only can they "chorie" and "pagger" (steal and fight) with the best, but they also manage to prise themselves out of tribalism and into self-determination; Carl as a globe-spanning DJ, Billy a boxer-turned-businessman.

As scheme boys in packs, roaming the streets and parks, the worst thing you can do is to get "too wide" ­ to be a bigger, more complex personality than your peer group allows. But Welsh shows with great subtlety how working-class roots can be exchanged for "routes", with the past fuelling aspirations, not holding it back. As Carl puts it, blissing out in Germany: "Ah belong everywhere."

It's the coherence of his social and political analysis that distinguishes Welsh from his rucking-and-fucking rivals. Amid all the fighting, shiteing and bragging, he smuggles in some pithy thumbnail critiques of late capitalism. (Although some No Logo-like moans ­ "it's just about selling more product and controlling those who couldn't afford to buy" ­ sound a bit duff coming from a writer who knows more than anyone the power of a subcultural brand.) When it all works ­ for example, when Juice Terry is breaking-and-entering, and philosophises on whether you should crap on your victim's carpet ­ Welsh comes across like an antic fusion of Swift, Zola and Defoe.

Yes, there are passages of appalling writing ("For Davie Galloway, it was the big windows that exemplified all that was good about these new slum-clearance places," is a deathless early line). But there's so much good, fluent prose that you begin to suspect that Welsh is playing much more complicated language games than his detractors give him credit for. One can never underestimate the impact on writers like Welsh of the linguistic politics of James Kelman and Alasdair Gray: the first militant about voicing the voiceless; the second liberating Scottish form from Scottish content in a way which wrecked the cosy "kailyard school" for ever.

Welsh took those declarations of stylistic freedom, and used them to articulate a new constituency. This is the shape-shifting, radically dissatisfied generation that closed the 20th century in the consumerist West... or, at least, as it manifested itself it in the bars and dancefloors of Leith and Granton. It's the "glue" of this society ­ what might keep these fissile selves talking to each other, caring for each other ­ that Welsh brilliantly traces in this book.

From its inception, the western novel has always founded its power on its ethical claims: words have to be arranged this way, to be able to render modern selves and societies as they really are. For all his ravey-davey stunts and pie-faced indifference, and despite all the mandarin condescension, Irvine Welsh is our most responsible ­ because most responsive ­ modern British novelist. A "return to form", indeed.

Pat Kane's 'The Play Ethic: living creatively in the 21st century' is published by Macmillan next year