Profane And Pornographic, Irvine Welsh's Latest Plumbs A New Kind Of Emptiness
Five pages into A Decent Ride, Irvine Welsh's newest novel, he makes a mention of Sick Boy — one of the main characters from his popular 1993 debut Trainspotting. That doesn't mean A Decent Ride is a sequel to Trainspotting (Welsh already did that with 2002's Porno). Instead, it's yet another visit to Welsh's shared universe of unsavory characters, a universe that sprawls from novel to novel while remaining mostly contained within his hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland. This time, the spotlight is on "Juice" Terry Lawson, a ribald cabbie who makes porn films with Sick Boy on the side.
"LET THE JUICE LOOSE" reads a tattoo on Terry's forearm, and that's exactly what A Decent Ride does. Previously appearing in Welsh's novel Glue and the story "I Am Miami" (from the 2009 collection Reheated Cabbage), Terry is a libido clad in a tracksuit and topped with curly hair. But Welsh imbues him — as he does with so many of his otherwise repellent creations — with earthy wisdom and startling dimension. As Terry moves from episode to episode, including one where he lands a lucrative new job chauffeuring an American reality TV star who's in Edinburgh with a secret agenda, he establishes an erratic orbit that draws him closer to all the people he's alienated in the past — including his old flame Maggie and his deadbeat father Henry. A storm of tangled relationships and madcap capers ensues, and Welsh renders it all with the same comedic precision and messy obscenity that he's been refining since Trainspotting.
Another storm looms in A Decent Ride: The book takes place in December of 2011, just as a hurricane descended on Scotland in real life, blowing over buses and knocking out power. It serves as a perhaps too obvious backdrop to Terry's personal turmoil, which culminates in the unthinkable: He finds himself medically impotent. It's a blow to more than just his bedpost; Terry's entire identity has been built around shagging, and his crisis is as existential as it is sexual.
Welsh pulls off some authentically melancholy insight into Terry's plight, as the cabbie takes up golf as a substitute for sex and begins to plumb the emptiness of his struggles and desires. Not too deeply, though; the pratfalls and wisecracks keep coming. And as always with Welsh, they're delivered in a porridge-thick stream of phonetically rendered Scots vernacular that takes some acclimation to decode. But it's worth the effort. Subtle wordplay and pop culture references abound, including the usual namedrops of British bands — from Joy Division to The Prodigy — that Welsh established way back in Trainspotting.
The difference here is there's less celebration of reckless youth and more of an emphasis on how our personal histories build up and trap us. One of Terry's offhand yet sage utterances — "Once ye get tagged a criminal, crime comes lookin for ye" — rings true as a disgustingly bizarre murder befalls someone close to him. He's also dealing with the horror of horrors for a self-styled ladies' man: being a grandfather. Even Sick Boy is a family man now, trying to juggle his porn production with everyday domestic concerns.
Ultimately, A Decent Ride is a book about growing older: What it's like to lose virility and cope with that loss, and what exactly we replace youth with when it departs and leaves a gaping, mocking vacuum in our souls. Juice is on the loose, but the first time in his life, that isn't enough. Is this a sign of a newfound maturity in Welsh's writing? Don't bet on it. But A Decent Ride does mine the pathos of aging and loss in its own profane, pornographic way.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.
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