Though no doubt Irvine Welsh would sneer at the very idea, on the evidence of Glue he is working-class Scotland's greatest living ethnographer. As he follows the fortunes and misfortunes of four characters over thirty years, he does for the inhabitants of Edinburgh's housing schemes what Damon Runyon did for the Prohibition-era criminal classes of New York: He recreates a closed society that functions according to its own rules, oblivious and largely impervious to those of the law-abiding, job-holding, standard-English-speaking, education-valuing middle classes.
The rules are no metaphor: Characters refer to them repeatedly, and toward the end of the book Welsh conveniently spells them out for us. Of his ten, here are the first six:
1. never hit a woman
2. always back up your mates
3. never scab
4. never cross a picket line
5. never grass friend nor foe
6. tell them nowt (them being polis, dole, social, journalists, council, census [takers], etc.)
If middle-class values ever penetrated Welsh's world (which they barely did), they don't count anymore. By 1980, every schoolboy knows that there are no real jobs left: Carl's father has worked the lathe at Ferranti's all his life, but there's no factory left for his son to follow him into, leaving Carl a deejay without a day job.
Juice Terry has had one job in his short career–going round the schemes selling juice (that's soda, or tonic, or maybe cola to you) off a van to the local kids. Twenty years later it still defines Terry to himself. "The juice lorries, that wis ma game. Tae gie me ma proper title ah wis an Aerated Waters Salesman. Goat peyed oaf back in 1981," he explains to an understandably baffled American visitor. Scorning the employment office's attempt to shunt him into minimum-wage burger-flipping, the only alternative he comes up with is the occasional housebreaking project, which doesn't really count as work, though it certainly takes effort.
Billy, the nearest thing to a traditional success story of the four, is a professional boxer who eventually leverages his local celebrity into ownership of a profitable bar. Wee Gally, the last of the quartet, takes a few unexpected detours through the criminal justice system and never quite makes it to regular paid employment.
They all keep busy, though, as do most of their friends–a bit of drug dealing here, a stint at window-washing there, a paying gig for Carl at a local club, the dole underpinning them all. In what's become in effect a nonprofit society, the Protestant ethic is as irrelevant as Terry's nostalgia for the good old days selling Irn Bru and Vimto.
With some shining exceptions, Welsh's characters are pretty smart, but not one of them finishes high school. There's only one answer to the accusation/question, "Are ye steying oan?"–"Waste ay fuckin time." That's not in the rules; aspiring to education is probably the most blatant evidence of class treachery, and the pathetic Gally keeps his ambition to finish school and really work on his foreign-language skills firmly to himself. Everybody knows that school's real function is to prepare you for the tedium of employment: Hauled in for being late, the boys are informed that "a school which tolerates lateness is by definition a failed school. It is a failed school because it has failed to prepare its pupils for a life of work." Carl points out that "thir isnae really any jobs now. Like where muh dad works, at Ferranti's, they jist peyed oaf a loat ay men." But teacher knows best: "There's plenty of work for those that are prepared to work. Always has been, always will be."
Showing off your education is even worse. When Billy's brother, Rab Birrell, starts taking a night school course on media and cultural studies, he immediately becomes an object of mingled suspicion and contempt. "Never gie a schemie an education," thinks Terry. "There was Birrell on some poxy course at Stevenson for ten minutes and he thinks eh's fuckin Chomsky." And a fellow boozer concurs: "The typical cynical schemie intellectual, too much of a critic to ever achieve anything in life…. Birrell, who actually believed that talking his pompous shite about politics to half-pished or jellied cunts in west-side pubs was going to raise their consciousness and inspire them to take political action and combine to change society."
At the same time, the lads are incensed when outsiders assume they're ignorant, stupid or bigoted. Carl gets denounced as a neo-Nazi after a photographer catches him in what looks like a Hitler salute: "He asked if we were fascists and a couple of us did the John Cleese thing as a piss-take. I was stupid. Stupid no tae realise that they can be as 'ironic' as they like, but schemies are never allowed to be the same. Even if it's what we grew up on, only we just called it taking the piss."
Welsh traces his characters' lives, decade by decade, from childhood to adulthood, 1970 to the very near future, pairing the two losers Terry and Gally with the two winners Billy and Carl. The episodic structure suits his talent for the vignette and the set piece; when he attempts a full-length story with a single protagonist, as in Glue's predecessor Filth, he falls flat, and the belated attempts at creating any sort of plot make for the weakest parts of this book. The longitudinal design is really what gives Glue its depth and a lot of its political and social resonance, making it more than just another slice of low life, Runyon without Runyon's cheeriness. How did these innocent wee bairns, mostly well behaved in school, helping their mothers in the house and carrying home the messages, turn into violent, drugged and/or drunken, at best intermittently functional, borderline or actually criminal, adults?
Welsh gives us a lot of clues, but his prime suspects are remarkably traditional ones: broken homes, absent or emasculated fathers. Gally's dad is arrested the day Gally starts primary school, and spends most of the book in prison; Terry's dad has long since vanished and his mother has remarried–to a German, of all things. Even in the more intact families, the collapse of reliable employment has destroyed the routines that used to keep life going. Billy's brother and girlfriend are dole-moles, hunched around the TV set all day. Even more depressingly, Billy's laid-off father takes up gourmet cooking and surfing the Internet, to his sons' profound embarrassment. By contrast, a life filled with football riots, picking up lassies, dealing drugs and enduring marathon-length pub crawls seems healthy, active, enterprising and downright sociable.
The section set in 1980, when Carl, Gally and Billy are 15–meaning that they're about to hit the magic moment when they can legally leave school and illegally pass for drinking age–has the most to say about the mechanisms that turn wee laddies into big layabouts. Edinburgh's other famous writer in exile, Robert Louis Stevenson, said of his native city that "the delicate die early," and there's a survival-of-the-fittest quality to these opening chapters. Welsh traces a potent form of reverse peer pressure: The 15-year-olds do anything they can to emulate their marginally older mates like Terry–the local heroes who have already left school, been arrested, had sex (or claimed to), done drugs and of course passed out in the course of at least one night's partying. Wee Gally's big moment comes when he gets invited along on the planned football riot: "Wir oaf! My herts gaun fuckin boom-boom-boom, bit ah'm tryin no tae show it." These rites of passage are clearly defined as such: The notion that at least some of them are supposed to be fun seems not to have occurred to anyone. Performance anxiety is a recurrent theme, but Welsh takes it far beyond the bedroom (or more often the living-room settee), out into the football stands, the pub, the club and the police station.
In what's become a service economy with an adequate level of state child support, the women, unsurprisingly, cope better at work and at home than their unreliable boyfriends or husbands. Welsh is curiously vague about just what the women do when they're off on their own (the ones who have kids spend a lot of time in the park), but there's one thing his characters, male and female, are all sure of: When it comes to sex, the old double standard is out the window and everyone is the happier for it. The lads go to Munich for the Oktoberfest (and sex); the lassies head to Ibiza for sex (and sex). While you can't exactly call the relationships enlightened (these are not Sensitive Guys), the women take care of themselves, enjoy themselves and give as good as they get. Rule number one is broken exactly once, with disastrous consequences; football fans who head-butt other teams' supporters at a moment's notice wouldn't dream of laying a hand on a woman, and the women know it. ("'Nivir hit a lassie,' Wullie nodded. 'Definitely,' Duncan agreed sternly, as Maria looked at him with a you-just-try-it-pal expression.")
Welsh's American reviewers seem determined to flaunt their linguistic inadequacies. Salon assures us that "reading anything by Irvine Welsh is sort of like reading Chaucer if you are not fluent in Middle English"; not to be outdone, a New York Times reviewer complains about the opaque Edinburgh ghetto dialect, resigning himself to the fact that Glue "is full of the vernacular oddness that is Welsh's hallmark." Well, your dialect sounds pretty funny to us too, ya wee septic. As Welsh's compatriot, playwright John McRay, puts it, "It's not ma accent, it's your ears." The dialogue that apparently baffles these readers is lovingly transcribed in a quasi-phonetic style that would delight the heart of Henry Higgins, but actual Scots words and phrases are–to this reader–surprisingly thin on the page. For whatever reason, there's little sign of the vivid vernacular I remember from my own childhood. The Edinburgh poet Robert Garioch, writing into the 1970s, filled his verses with common words like scunner, clarty, thrawn, peelie-wallie–all terms that would have been in use at least by the parents of Welsh's main characters. A few echt expressions turn up in Glue–"torn-faced," "pooroot," "glaikit"–but you don't really need a glossary to follow the action. The endless cultural references are another matter, ranging from the Beano to Irn Bru to every Scottish football team worth mentioning and a fair number of their actual players (including–disclosure–my own cousin Alan Gordon, who played for Hearts back in the 1970s). Foreigners be warned: You won't get a lot of the jokes.
Edinburgh is always the point of reference, the center of the universe. (In Australia, Carl is underimpressed by Bondi Beach, which looks a lot like his native Porty–"mair sand but.") But it's an Edinburgh with a lot of bits missing. Terry says he hardly ever gets past Haymarket; prosperous Barnton and the Grange are familiar only as housebreaking opportunities. You'd never know Edinburgh featured tourist attractions like Princes Street Gardens, Holyrood Palace or St. Giles's Cathedral; in fact, you get the distinct impression that Welsh's characters have never encountered these well-advertised landmarks. What they do know in excruciating detail are the miles of low-income slum-clearance housing projects, invisible from the part of Edinburgh that the visitors get to see. The publisher might have given thought to including a map of Edinburgh and Leith, color-coded to show the fine social gradations between Stenhouse and Drylaw, Niddrie and Sighthill, Broomhouse and Granton, Leith and Leith. ("Thir's Leith n thir's Leith mate," the cab driver explains to the American visitor, whose failure to appreciate this key distinction brings predictable disaster.) But it's surely impossible to convey to any outsider the depth of scorn Welsh packs into "Tranent."
Like his characters, as soon as Welsh leaves Edinburgh he's out of his depth. His Germans are stage Germans: On their visit to Munich, as Terry embarks on a fight with the police, Carl is warned by his host, "You should tell your friend that in this country there is little to be gained in antagonising the police." (Carl sensibly keeps his response to himself–"It's the same in oor country, but that disnae stoap us.") Americans are stage Americans; Australians…well, luckily they don't get to say much. When his people migrate (to another class or another continent), you can feel Welsh losing touch with them. Sometimes this is on purpose. Ex-prizefighter Billy Birrell has abandoned most of his old mates by the end of the book, a move marked in a scene of intolerable pathos–to a Scot, at least: When Terry shows up in the new pub, expecting a cheery welcome and drinks on the house, Billy turns him away. But sometimes it feels more like a failure of nerve: When Carl fetches up in Australia, he seems to have lost all purpose, in his own life and in the story, and within a few pages, sure enough, Welsh has him on an emergency flight to Edinburgh, back to his father's deathbed and people who speak his language.
The remaining lads, still true to form, turn up to visit Carl's dying father. Terry's checking out the nurses; Billy's being suitably sympathetic to the family while trying not to get in another fight with Terry; Carl listens to his father's last words:
Mind the ten rules, he wheezed at his son, squeezing his hand. Carl Ewart looked at the broken parody of his father, sprawled under the sheets in his bed. Aye, they really worked for you, he thought.
But all the same he finds himself replying, "Of course I will, Dad." For once Welsh isn't taking the piss: In spite of the depredations of Thatcher and Blair, the end of work, the death of Elvis, the arrival of Ecstasy, AIDS, techno and cell phones, in Edinburgh the basics never change.