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ECSTASY: Three Chemical Romances by Irvine Welsh, Cape pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
If you live by word of mouth you may die that way too. In the three years that Irvine Welsh's writing has been percolating through the culture, from literary fanzines to an adaptation watched by a cabinet minister at the Cannes film festival, certain ideas about him have taken root. Welsh has been praised for his rave-culture modernity, his daringly depraved, and deprived, characters and, above all, for his authenticity. But while all of these qualities were to some extent present in his first three books - although the ability of Welsh's mostly middle-class champions to judge the realism of his tower-block milieu may be questioned - they were often the least interesting aspects of his fiction. His books' best elements were in fact traditional: the thrilling torrent of language carrying Trainspotting, the witty class-reversals spicing The Acid House, the many-layered narrative running through Marabou Stork Nightmares. Welsh was just a good writer, not some subcultural fantasy figure.

The trouble with Ecstasy, starting with its title, is that Welsh has now dropped his writing to the level of his fans' expectations. As before, many of the characters are finely drawn football hooligans who take drugs and go to clubs. Here, however, these motifs seem more like props, holding up page after too-familiar page, rather than providing new routes into the psyche as they used to. Barely 20 pages into the first of Ecstasy's three novellas, "Lorraine Goes To Livingston", Welsh falls back on describing a night out: " He was dancing like a maniac ... There were no poseurs here, they were all going crazy. This wasn't dance, that wasn't the word for what this was ... A mass scream went up from the crowd as the music left one crescendo and changed its tempo to build up to the next one." The writing is oddly pedestrian. Welsh is not really trying.

When he does attempt a new direction, this previously dazzling writer suddenly seems lost. The opening story is about an author of romances called Rebecca Navarro escaping from her creative straitjacket, and her unfaithful husband Perky, after a stroke and an encounter with an inspiring young nurse. Much of it is told in a tentative third-person as Welsh tries out conventional narrative for the first time. And some of the characters are cartoons: Perky is a cold and brutal upper-class Englishman, who calls his wife "the old girl" and visits prostitutes, while the hospital which treats Rebecca raises funds through a creepy television personality who speaks in a disastrous West Country vernacular ("still a bit wahrm n arl ... bit too waarm for moi tastes if the truth be told").

At this point, Welsh's instinctive, quick-written populism seems to be flipping over into an embarrassment, set to glare for months in its Technicolor jacket from every bookshop in the country. Then the second novella, "Fortune's Always Hiding", pulls the book back from the brink. Fragmented and dialogue- driven, it chops busily back and forth through the story of an East End casual called Dave and his vengeful love for Samantha, born without any arms thanks to the malfunction of an anti-mouth-ulcer drug. In 70 pages Welsh sets out a whole international panorama of protagonists: Dave's scrap-happy mates in Mile End, Samantha's previous boyfriend, a German punk-turned-terrorist crippled in the same way, and the transatlantic corporate warrior who marketed the drug and escaped the blame. All are neatly set on converging courses, ending in Dave's scrapyard lock-up.

It feels like a sketch, though: action in a void, with none of the vividly textured backdrop of place and small activity that made Trainspotting so alive. The last story, "The Undefeated", is more reminiscent of that: just a series of bleary weekends in the life of Lloyd, a lad from Leith with little to do save drugs, dancing, and the arranging thereof. This time, Welsh is good on the minutiae, on the leisure rituals his characters transform, given the dole and poor-pay wastes all around them, into reasons for living. The difference between here and the first novella is that he writes these raves as he has talked and heard talk of them, in direct speech: "... This operatic slab of synth seems to be 3D and ah realise that I'm coming up in a big way

Alongside this intoxication, Welsh slides doubts. "I'm thirty fucking one which is possibly too old to be carrying on like this," Lloyd thinks to himself, as he has druggy sex with an 18-year-old. (Welsh is at some undefined point in his late thirties himself.) Rising and falling listlessly with each bender and its hangover, Lloyd flops into the path of Heather, who is herself drifting through a straight life of harassment at the office - sharply rendered by Welsh, an ex-council employee - and a husband who speaks only of office extensions. Heather tries E; Lloyd tries giving up E. Their romance, like the others in Ecstasy, gropes towards some kind of centre-ground between live-for-the-moment hedonism and old-fashioned personal growth. To judge by this collection, Welsh hasn't quite found it yet.