by JOSH HEAPS
Irvine Welsh, Dead Men’s Trousers, (Vintage, 2019), pp. 432
This review originally appeared in the Winter 2020 print issue of Carolina Quarterly.
For twenty-five years, Irvine Welsh has interrogated a fictional Scotland; drifting between reality and nightmare, his is a purgatory of brothels and track marks whose captives dream of escape: “this fucking town! I have to get out of here.” It is because of this persistently dreary setting that I hesitate to call Welsh’s 2018 Dead Men’s Trouser’s a sequel to Trainspotting. To me, it is merely the tenth book set in the author’s Scotland, or more specifically, his port city of Leith, just north of Edinburgh. Dead Men’s Trousers, the “grand finale of Trainspotting,” is a culmination of all its ‘prequels,’ with the return of many books worth of characters making a final, perhaps not-so triumphant, return. After nearly thirty years of rage, laughter, and a whole lot of narcotics (in this book, mostly cocaine, or ‘ching,’ as they call it), Welsh finally seems ready to lay his friends to rest. Not all exit the series peacefully.
Dead Men’s Trousers is the fourth book to directly continue the story of the ragtag Trainspotting bunch. While, in typical Welsh style, they narrate their own chapters, a constant shifting that contributes to the text’s chaos, the boys are still Leith street-heads, exhibiting the same unifying, illicit, and often illogical slang as ever: “ah fuckin hate the way some American cunts call lassies cunts. Fuckin offensive, that shite.” The only difference is that they’re nearing fifty, and, as they’re finding out, age is not only a number. There’s Renton, now a manager accompanying young and reckless DJs around the world; Sick Boy, owner of an escort app. that pimps out young women (33% of whom have MBAs); Begbie, psychopath-turned- prisoner-turned-famous artist and California stay-at-home dad; and Spud, the kindest of the four, begging on the streets of Leith for quarters. The gang hasn’t seen each other since Renton stole all of their money in 2002’s Porno, and though they each have their own set of problems — like Sick Boy, whose brother in-law has run off after a bad MDMA experience — fate, egged on by a botched organ transplant, finds a way to ensnare them in one last hurrah. In a climax they won’t all survive, who will wear the dead man’s trousers?
A steadfast and striking aspect of Welsh’s writing is its adherence to the dialect of lowland Scotland. The language coheres to the argot of whoever’s narrating, and though his characters do speak English, fluency doesn’t guarantee comprehension. It can get brutal. While some chapters, like Renton’s, are bearable, others, like Spud’s, throw all the rules out the window. A trick is to read out loud, as the misspelling are often phonetic:
“Mikey nods and we head ower the cobblestanes intae that awfay welcome howf. Ken whin the heat jist blasts oot? Ye cannae beat that, man, even though it’s like the maist miserable time for a wee while, while the body pure adjust. It’s like that fulum ah saw once whin they wir in space n hud tae wrap up in likesay tinfoil n jump fae one ship tae another, wi nae suits oan or nowt.”
The language can even shift mid-chapter, following a character’s code switching. Renton, Sick Boy, and Begbie aren’t street rats anymore — they brush shoulders with reputable people, and as such, have had to change their manners. Sick Boy, for instance, transitions fluidly between the often filthy patois of the street and the more eloquent speech of the upper-class, all depending on who he’s doing business with (and Sick Boy is always doing business). It’s only towards the novel’s end, when they’re all back together, that this pretense falls away.
As dependable as setting and language, a Trainspotting novel wouldn’t be the same without its drugs. But, here is where Dead Men’s Trousers defects from its prequels. Heroine, or skag, is missing from the story. In its place is DMT, often called ‘the spirit molecule,’ and as the book title’s acronym hints, this mind-altering substance shapes much of the narrative. Unlike the life-ruining narcotics of the previous novels (I’m thinking of a scene during the Trainspotting movie where Renton dives headfirst into a public toilet to retrieve a baggie of drugs), DMT affects each of the gang in profoundly cathartic ways; our boys are growing up. The only attempts Welsh makes at expressing these trips are through illustration.
It is in these psychedelic experiences that Dead Men’s Trousers shows its hand. Unlike the heroin nods of the previous novels, the gang’s new drug experiences are represented through surreal ink drawings. Instead of leaving the reader with a sense of pity or revulsion, these beautiful renderings stand out from the columns of text to inspire hopes of a fresh start, or at least, exoneration of past sins. Through them, the gang is confronted by their histories and presented a chance at redemption.
Still, after thirty years of bad choices, not all jump at absolution. Begbie, for instance, hallucinates a dinner table surrounded by all the people he’s killed: “There wis this overriding idea that we need tae ust sit doon and get on wi the meal. Finish it, so we could move on, go somewhere else. Ah wonder where.” Though he feels a strange unrest at the site of his victims, he has trouble sympathizing; perhaps Begbie is too far-gone for salvation. With these DMT trips, it’s almost like Welsh is begging his four friends to take a look at their lives. This is their last chance at forgiveness, and in a book about redemption, he sure doesn’t want them to screw it up.
The strange thing about Dead Men’s Trousers is that, for a being a novel, in part, about absolution, most of the characters don’t deserve the fates they are handed. Unrepentant monsters live happily ever after (one’s last scene is his walking into a literal sunset), while good men die slow and painful deaths. The reader is left puzzled at these unfitting ends. All this work, all this DMT, for what? As frustrating as this inconsistency may be, such ambiguity is characteristic of the series’ gritty realism. To read a Trainspotting novel is to take a gamble, and the high the books provide is one of the reasons they have has kept their steadfast, adrenaline-ridden fans (myself included).
Perhaps, for all his posturing and street smarts, Welsh was too in love with some characters to sentence them to damnation. Or, in typical Leith fashion, he’s showing his readers that in real life, the good die young and the bad get away with it. I certainly don’t know, and neither does Renton, who ends the book, and his own story, with this: “I think about Sick Boy’s words, that you can only be a cunt or a mug, and you really can’t be a mug. A thousand things go through my mind at once. Maybe atonement is about doing the right thing. But who for?”