Edinburgh in the early 1980s is very much on the trailing edge of Thatcher’s Britain, with widespread unemployment, poverty and hopelessness. It’s also home to a large pharmaceutical factory from which ‘escapes’ copious quantities of pure medical-grade diamorphine. These two facts prove a dangerous combination for teenagers Mark, Simon and Danny, who were first introduced in Trainspotting as their older, heroin-addicted incarnations, Renton, Sick Boy and Spud.
Irvine Welsh again roots his novel in Renton’s story, as Renton tries to juggle what seems like an almost pointless university degree with a life back home amongst the friends who aren’t even pretending they believe they have a choice about getting anywhere. A family tragedy appears to inspire the Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard-reading Renton to accept the essential meaningless of life, and from there it’s only a few ambivalent shrugs to letting someone plug a hypodermic into his arm for the first time.
Welsh tries hard not to make Renton’s slide into addiction obvious and one-dimensional. He teases us with possible reasons for it that amount mostly to nothing, least of all facile explanations. Ultimately Renton keeps on shooting up for no more complex a reason than he really, really likes it.
I’m not sure the novel is entirely necessary. It repeats more than a couple of the plot beats of Trainspotting, just in a different order. Here they’re getting into heroin, here they’re trying to get off it, and now they’re getting involved in some big drug deal. But Skagboys is still very readable.
Trainspotting was such a brilliant, rough-and-ready, thrown-together kind of novel that I have shied away from reading anything else Welsh has written, even the sequel. Skagboys is very polished by comparison. Welsh has become too much of a writer. I liked the fact that you never knew what you were going to get next with the next chapter in Trainspotting, and that sometimes some of them were just long jokes rather than short stories. Skagboys is more grim, sadder, with less to laugh at, as if the party’s over before it’s really begun.
I also wondered as I read the novel whether Welsh was not much of a fan of Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Trainspotting. There are references aplenty as to how little the characters look like the actors who played their older selves. Robert Carlyle probably scared a whole generation of Sassenachs from ever wandering around Leith after dark, but Skagboys‘ Begbie would have been far worse.