Dead Men’s Trousers by Irvine Welsh – a last hurrah for Renton and company

The heroes of Trainspotting keep on giving – albeit in increasingly cartoonish form

Irvine Welsh’s style is so pulpy nowadays that it’s hard to imagine Booker prize judges losing time arguing over his sexual politics, as they are said to have done before ruling out his 1993 debut, Trainspotting, for the misogyny of its heroin-addicted protagonist, Renton, and his fellow Edinburgh low-lifes, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud.

Welsh has since tended to play safer, softening the cynicism of that novel for preachier, more farcical capers that take care to turn the tables on their unreconstructed male leads (while still relying on them for tang). Somewhere along the way, though, the prose has grown uneven: much of Dead Men’s Trousers – a fifth and apparently last hurrah for Renton and company, now in middle age – unfolds in the kind of airport-thriller gush (champagne is a “bubbling elixir”; people don’t wear clothes but “sport” them) that’s now nearly as much a Welsh hallmark as his X-rated Scots (“Ah fuckin hate the way some American cunts call lassies cunts. Fuckin offensive, that shite”).

Set in the run-in to the Brexit vote, the plot turns on the guilt of Renton, now reformed as a jet-setting DJ promoter, over cash he once stole from Begbie – who for his part has put thug life behind him to become a celebrated sculptor, albeit one prone to deadly rage if his doting wife and daughters aren’t around to witness it (as shown in 2016’s The Blade Artist). Sick Boy, meanwhile, has a new app-accessible escort agency to front his exploitation of underage girls; and Spud, dirt-poor, is ready to accept a job offer that involves smuggling a kidney to Germany via Istanbul.

The scene where he winds up in a disused warehouse being operated on by Sick Boy, with only a YouTube tutorial for instruction – running on a laptop that’s low on power, with no charger – is one of several impressively hairy set pieces (others variously involve a samurai sword, an assault rifle and a sex tape unveiled over Christmas lunch).

Yet, overall, jeopardy fizzles out as Welsh – a little in love with his own voice – swamps the action with rants about “neoliberal planet-rapists” and “monarchy-worshipping paedophile bastards”; more entertaining, at least, than gripes about long-haul flight – Welsh now lives in Miami – and online banking (“It disnae work so smoothly when you’re between countries”). Still, the grumpy-old-raver vibe does produce probably the book’s most blackly funny exchange, when Sick Boy – a pimp, remember – is aghast that Renton, whose star client wants to be the next David Guetta, should be “coining it in fae they fucking shit EDM DJs”.

Like a superhero franchise, the Trainspotting universe gets a new origin story with every reboot. Skagboys showed how Renton’s initation into heroin came after police beat him up at Orgreave; The Blade Artist put Begbie’s bloodlust down to a teacher’s mismanagement of his boyhood dyslexia. The tweak in Dead Men’s Trousers is more meta: Trainspotting, it’s implied, was only published after Renton stole the manuscript from Spud and passed it off as his own. This nicely muddies Renton’s claim to be a reformed character – but only at the time-warping expense of having us believe that the original book was published in 2017 (and not 1993). It’s ultimately a mark of Welsh’s magic in having created such memorable characters in the first place that they survive this cartoonish revision. And to judge from hints that Begbie’s ever so slightly scary eldest daughter has one or two anger management issues of her own (Trainspotting: The Next Generation, anyone?), I wouldn’t bet on him leaving them for good any time soon.

• Dead Men’s Trousers by Irvine Welsh is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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