A Decent Ride by Irvine Welsh review – poor writing and penis jokes

An outing for Irvine Welsh’s cabbie lothario is slow going thanks to half-baked typographical experiments and lifeless description

Given that it features incest, rape, grave desecration, necrophilia and one character filling a terminally ill man’s saline drip with urine and semen, it is curious that the most shocking thing about Irvine Welsh’s new novel, A Decent Ride, is that it was published at all. Perhaps the whole thing should be read as a symptom rather than a story.

The novel returns to “Juice” Terry Lawson, who also appeared in Glue and Porno. An ageing and remarkably successful black-cab lothario, Terry has a portfolio career that now includes “supervising” a sauna for a gangster called “The Poof”, delivering drugs, appearing in low-grade online porn movies for Trainspotting’s Sick Boy and acting as general fixer to an American businessman and TV personality whose golf course developments in Scotland are a cover for his attempts to acquire a fantastically rare whisky. (The whisky is called Bowcullen Trinity, but McGuffin would suffice.) Lawson’s picaresque peregrinations bring him in contact with Jonty McKay, a kind of Forrest Gump from Penicuik, whose girlfriend has gone missing, and who has a large penis. As has Terry. But did Terry’s Dad? That is just one of the questions I couldn’t care less about. Terry’s penis not only gets plenty of use, even helping a young playwright forget about killing herself, but also its own voice, in chapters laid out typographically to look like an ejaculating penis. It is as if Welsh was so bored he decided to carve a willy on his desk.

Chapters veer between first-person narrators and the third person, because banter holds up plot and plot has less room for banter. The reader is told that Terry has corkscrew curls on page three, then page five, and then on a regular basis up to page 469. The novel is set in 2011-2, with references to the extratropical cyclone Friedhelm – known in Scotland as “Hurricane Bawbag” – and the Hibs-Hearts Scottish Cup final. Yet when Terry takes his children to the cinema, 2009’s Up is still showing, and he has a knowledge of Gary Barlow’s tax affairs two years before anyone else. Of course, the Scottish Referendum lingers in the background – Edinburgh is “a city crushed by its own lack of ambition, grumblingly miserable about its status as a provincial north British town, yet unwilling to seize its larger destiny as a European capital”. The blinkered American can only comment on Alex Salmond’s waistline. But the oddest part of this is when Terry’s penis declares independence and we get three pages of disjointed repetitions of the word “freedom”, which must make Edwin Morgan turn in his grave and Alasdair Gray wish he’d never done the typographical breakdown in 1982, Janine.

What used to be interesting about Welsh’s prose was how the registers grated and undercut each other: here, they float in aspic; and when he forgoes his own phonetic renditions for “English”, the effect is to induce not bathos but pity in the reader. “His life has become a constant struggle … All those factors wouldn’t have bothered him in the slightest if he didn’t have his sexual issue; but, as things stood, they relentlessly underscore his misery, to the point of him considering that he’ll have to leave Edinburgh” is a typically lifeless sample.

Terry is told halfway through that he has a heart condition and is put on bromides. As a replacement for “minge” and “rumpy-pumpy”, he takes up golf with his US customer, so the single entendre jokes change from rides to holes and strokes. But there is another side effect of enforced celibacy. Terry becomes a reader – taking in Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby, The Naked Lunch and William Faulkner, the last being a sop to Welsh’s academic facilitators, who can now go weak-kneed in comparing Jonty with Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury. He even starts to write poetry. Terry already knows, having picked up one appearing at the Edinburgh book festival, that authors get a lot of sex, and do coke, and are pretty cool. The message is clear: writers are creative, readers are emasculated. This is a desperately sad disparagement of the audience Welsh presumably wishes to reach, and a ghastly boosterism about being a writer rather than doing the difficult work of writing.

I could have spent this entire review analysing Welsh’s sexual politics – but what would be the point? The tired old rebuttal is “it’s a satire and you don’t have a sense of humour”. But listen. What’s that? It’s the sound of no one laughing. There is a faint and distant sniggering, though. If anyone parts with £12.99 for this, they’re being taken for a ride.

• To order A Decent Ride for £9.99 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Contributor

Stuart Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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