Tales of Chemical Degeneration
God how I love Irvine Welsh. Back around the time of Trainspotting I was on a huge Scottish Lit kick and was reading everyone I could get my hands on, Iain Banks, Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Alan Warner just to name a few. Welsh is one of the best. Reheated Cabbage is a collection of stories from around the time of Trainspotting, pulled together from anthologies and articles that are no longer available in print, plus one new novella, I Am Miami, that reintroduces us to some familiar characters from Glue.
Welsh gets right into the thick of it right away with A Fault On the Line. Never try to get between a Scotsman and his footie as one hapless wife finds out on match day. Much like the toilet scene at the beginning of Trainspotting, Welsh isn’t afraid to hit you hard with an unexpected, gory and almost unbelievably ridiculous culmination to what starts out as a nice day out for an unsuspecting family.
Welsh writes much of his dialect with phonetic spelling so it can be a bit harsh at first to really “hear” what the characters are saying. After a few pages it gets to be quite melodic and the slang really makes me miss living in Britain. We had a friend from Glasgow, who, when I first met her, I couldn’t understand a word she said. You have to let go a little and let your inner ear hear the words and then it’s easy.
Welsh uses this to great effect in The Rosewell Incident. Imagine Earth has been invaded by aliens who first drop down and abduct a thug, from one of Scotland’s worst neighborhoods, to infiltrate the human race. The hilarity of a Leith-accented bad boy alien demanding the leaders of Earth’s superpowers bow down to their superior race, brings science fiction to new heights of insanity, but hey, aliens can’t always land in New York or Tokyo and speak English like Prince Charles.
My favorite story invites us to a family Christmas debacle with none other than that paragon of male gentility, Francis Begbie. Elsbeth’s Boyfriend shows us once again, in case you forgot, that Begbie is so convinced of his own shining personality, humanity, humility, intelligence and compassion that he can’t even eat Christmas dinner without breaking something or someone. He is the ultimate Welsh character, so utterly unaware of his own ignorance and anti-social habits you can’t help but laugh a little at his misfortune. It’s a testament to Welsh’s abilities as a writer that almost every protagonist is some version of Begbie, and yet, you can’t help but love (and pity) them a little, while you are laughing at them at the same time.
Overall it was a very enjoyable read, and I highly recommend Reheated Cabbage to anyone who likes reading about anti-social, thuggish, ill-mannered, drug-addicted characters who can’t help themselves from being thoroughly brutish and yet lovable all the same.