For all his faults--the bleak class determinism, the ongoing preoccupation with the social ravages of Thatcherism, the unsexy depictions of sex--it's awfully hard not to like Irvine Welsh, and the perpetually harried beautiful losers he employs as characters. Readers loved the ne'er-do-well smack-buddy film vérité of 1993's Trainspotting and the beyond-insane machinations of that embodiment of debauchery, Sgt. Bruce Robertson, in 1999's Filth. Even with often turgid and horrifying subject matter, Welsh has always come across as the tarted-up street-corner novelist with a heart of gold, the kind of guy who can look unblinkingly at humanity's animal instincts yet still love the creature within.
For all their creator's affection, Welsh's characters have never gotten much of a chance at self-transcendence, to say nothing of a way out of the projects and flats. This time around, with his sixth novel, Welsh laces his usual sour-sweet sentimentality with a hint of possible redemption, a chance for his blokes to beat the world--literally in the case of a champion prizefighter, figuratively for a guy who spins records and aspires to make hits. As the title implies, Glue is about the ties that bind friend to friend, family to family, year to year--a notion of friends-as-genuine-allies that flies in the face of much of Welsh's backlist, full of pals tearing each other down.
The author affords his opus a 30-year sweep so we can see Terry Lawson, Carl Ewart, Andrew Galloway, and Billy Birrell grow up amid the poverty of Edinburgh, perpetual ground zero for Welsh's black-humored agitprop. The novelist's dialect-accurate verbiage is especially kind to debauched, skirt-chasing Lawson, who deals soft drinks from a lorry when he isn't courting sisters behind each other's backs or indulging in soccer hooliganism. Lawson is a young, less hopeless Sgt. Robertson, the archetype Welsh invented and still holds the patent on. Ewart comes across well too, first as a teen trying to figure it all out, then as a kind of poor man's Fatboy Slim, an E-addled thirtysomething DJ dressed in clothes way too young for him. For him, Edinburgh and its edgy life maintain their pull.
In giving his characters all those years, though, Welsh may be trying to do too much; his renderings of perhaps the two most pivotal players--the successful pugilist, Birrell, and the star-crossed bad seed, "Gally"--are thin and reportorial. Save for an early chapter written from Gally's viewpoint (almost all of the book is written from the characters' perspectives), the narratives seem false and predictably deterministic. All Welsh's characters are shadowy, but Gally and Birrell come off as ghosts.
Much is made in the story about the "ten rules" the street boys learn from Carl's working-class-hero father, Duncan, and others, the prime one being "you don't grass [tell on] your mates." But these directives don't come across as either homilies or absurdities; like much of the novel, they just sit there like the characters, who move mostly in tiresomely downcast directions. Glue isn't so much a novel as a water slide into a cesspool, with only your friends offering you an occasional hand up--and yes, that's Welsh the optimist.
The author's dead-on rendering of Edinburgh dialect is, as always, entertaining--for the first few pages or so. After a while, you long for an omniscient, unaccented narrator to rescue you from the page you've been trying to decipher for the past five minutes. Verisimilitude is always admirable, but a question remains: If we can understand Billy Connolly's jokes or sing along with those troubadours from Leith, the Proclaimers, whae caint wee fookin rade thiss?