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."