A Decent Ride by Irvine Welsh
Doubleday, 2016; 496 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fischer
In 1993, Irvine Welsh gave us Trainspotting, his first novel and the beginning of a long series of novels and short story collections that share the same working class Edinburgh and Leith characters. This shared narrative functions in a very real-world way: Some of the characters are friends, some are enemies, some are completely unaware of each other. The drama from each new bit informs the larger world, even if it only means that characters we recognize are hanging out in the background. For example, if Begbie from Trainspotting is in a pub, then we know what kind of pub it is. Begbie doesn’t have to do anything. We know that violence is coming, simply from his presence.
After ten novels and four short story collections, there is a startling amount of depth not just to the characters and their voices (Welsh typically writes in dialect, which is his best quality. He’s proven to have an incredible ear and an ability to forge a character almost solely through inflection and choice of language.) and vices. (The Scotland he paints is one of character defined through indulgence, whether that be drugs, violence, or in this case sex, sex, sex, sex, sex.) Welsh’s oeuvre is a continued exploration of Scotland, class, masculinity, and male friendship. More importantly it’s an exploration of how all those things interact with each other.
A Decent Ride follows “Juice” Terry Lawson, a character first introduced in the coming-of-age novel Glue, and later a supporting character in the Trainspotting sequel Porno. While Terry is a character whose world is filled with tragedy, he is also Welsh’s most purely comedic character. He refers to himself as a “shagger” and “fanny merchant,” and though Welsh’s Edinburgh is populated with drugs, crime, and violence, Terry has always been mostly concerned with sex: the titular ride. The sex he’s having is good-natured; it’s body positive and female pleasure-centric. Though there’s something inherently objectifying about the reduction of his relationships with women to sex, he addresses this through noting that he doesn’t believe women were put on this planet to please him, but rather he was put on this planet to please women. He believes he’s objectifying himself and he has no problem with it. He’s charming. You get why women would sleep with him. When the novel’s plot turns on the idea that Terry can’t have sex anymore for health reasons, we start to get chapters narrated by his penis. In these chapters, the words as placed on the page form the shape of that penis. It’s not very subtle. It’s immature. It works because the aesthetics are fitting to the mood of the character. Terry associates the whole of his being with what he refers to as “Auld Faithful.” When it’s taken away from him, his identity changes drastically.
The novel plays best when it’s a character piece, though eventually it turns its attention to plot. In the opening pages Terry meets Ron Checker, an American real estate developer who is looking to purchase the Bowcullen Trinity—three very expensive bottles of scotch—and through a series of plot twists ends up playing a game of golf with Terry as his partner against two Danes for the last bottle. It’s a lot like Caddyshack, and it reads as silly as it sounds. When it’s not mimicking seminal ’80s comedies, the story leans in the direction of brutal and grotesque. There’s a character, Jonty, who identifies as a simple country lad—simple being the most obvious identifying attribute. Jonty’s plot, before it intersects with Terry and Ron’s, circles around his missing girlfriend and explores murder, necrophilia, rape, and incest. Everyone in Jonty’s world is almost parodically overweight or a sexual predator, or a parodically overweight predator. Switching between these plots feels like changing the channels back and forth between Caddyshack and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In hindsight, that’s probably a weirdly advanced form of realism, but it messes with tone in all sorts of ways.
It’s always a pleasure and a harrowing emotional experience to return to Welsh’s Edinburgh. Unfortunately, this is B-side Welsh. It’s funny and fearless and can be very smart when it is digging deep into Terry’s character for the real pulp of who he is and why he acts the way he does. At the points when the novel’s main concern is the pathos of Terry’s sexual addiction, and the shedding of his comedic persona as the means to satisfy that addiction are taken from him, this is a very, very good novel. There is, however, enough to distract from those good bits, both thematically and aesthetically to kneecap the whole thing.