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Literature / Skagboys

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Renton: But what did ye say tae get him tae come back inside?
Cop: I just told him that no matter how bad it all seemed now, it's just part and parcel of being young. That it gets easier. That he's got to remember this and not throw it all away. That life is a gift.
Renton: Does it? Get easier, I mean.
Cop: Does it fuck; it gets bleedin worse...
Mark Renton's got it all: he's young, smart, and good-looking with his own flat, girlfriend, and a place at Aberdeen University. But there is no room for him in the 80s. As Thatcherism demolishes working-class communities across the UK, Renton's family fractures and he finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the unsavory, drug-infested side of the Northern Soul scene as he succumbs to defeatism and despair. His life begins to fall apart, but nothing is ever so bad that it can't get worse.

His friends aren't doing much better. Frank Begbie's increasingly unhinged and violent behavior is making him a feared name across Leith. Spud is laid off from his furniture removals job and unable to find new employment. Tommy Lawrence is unwillingly sucked into the world of petty crime by Begbie and Matty Connelly. And Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson is becoming more and more at the mercy of the inner rage which compels him to scar, manipulate, and torment everyone he can. But with bust comes opportunity...

The highly-anticipated prequel to Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Skagboys tells the story of the disintegration of these friends against the backdrop of Edinburgh in the 1980s: a time and place of drugs, poverty, AIDS, violence and rapidly vanishing hope for the future.


Skagboys contains examples of:

  • Ascended Extra: Several for Trainspotting. Keezbo is mentioned on just one page in the original, where Mark reflects on how he's sadly never going to visit him in prison, but is present and has a significant role to play in the prequel. Ditto for Nicksy, who even gets narration duties with Welsh's version of Cockney.
    • Wee Davie, as much as a poor wee vegetable like him can be considered a character.
    • Sick Boy meets his Greek counterpart Andreas in London for the first time.
    • Charlene, who Renton briefly mentions as being present at a London party he crashes at in the original, turns out to have been a master thief who he had a short, torrid affair with in this novel.
    • To some extent, Matty.
    • Alison, albeit her role was already expanded by the time of Porno.
    • The menacing drug dealing ex biker, Seeker.
    • Retroactively inverted with Kelly. Here she's got a bit part, but as Trainspotting is the sequel to Skagboys it gives her some character development as a budding student and Mark's casual girlfriend.
  • Ass Shove: Anal sex occurs a couple of times throughout the book, most notably Renton's sex with Joanne, Spud's attempt with the washed-up singer and Alison's use of a strap-on with Sick Boy.
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  • Author Tract: Welsh's thoughts on Thatcherism are blatantly obvious.
  • Ax-Crazy: Begbie goes way beyond the embryonic football hooligan he was first chronologically introduced as in Glue. He gets caught up in a paternity dispute with another rough local family. Needless to say, he doesn't want to raise the kid. After stabbing one of her brothers and hospitalising him, Begbie decides to take matters into his own hands. Attacking the eldest, hardest brother with a fence railing, he breaks the guy's jaw and sends several of his teeth flying. As if that wasn't enough, he accentuates the point by driving the spiked end into the poor lad's crotch and smacks him twice more in the face. Much to Tommy's stunned horror.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Invoked by Alexander when his family criticizes him for leaving his wife, which she had apparently said several times she hoped he would do.
  • Break the Cutie: Depending on how much you like their characters, arguably Renton, Spud, Keezbo, Second Prize, Alison, Leslie and Sick Boy (though this was before his Despair Event Horizon...) among others. Its not entirely clear if Matty was ever what you might call a cutie, and even if he was, he seems to have broken long before even this prequel.
  • Butt-Monkey: Matty. Constantly berated behind his back and in his face for being a junk-addicted scruffy thief with a bad attitude.
  • Continuity Nod: Even for an Irvine Welsh novel, this one is particularly packed with references to The 'Verse. Above and beyond just the innumerable call forwards to Trainspotting, we have:
    • Bruce Robertson and possibly one of his colleagues from Filth play Good Cop/Bad Cop against Renton, Keezbo and Matty after being lifted for nicking an a charity collection tin.
    • Naturally, we also separately hear about Bruce's irritating boss Robert Toal and his lawyer nemesis, Conrald Donaldson QC.
    • One of the well wishers mentioned in the card for Renton while he's in rehab? None other than Carl Ewart.
    • The lead player in the Edinburgh underworld, Davie "Fat Tyrone" Power from Glue offers Begbie and the other psychos some work installing fruit machines across Edinburgh's pubs.
    • Gina the fat junkie apparently goes on to be the scary boiler who gets her scenes cut in the Porno.
    • Morag the old faithful boiler went from serving Renton chips at Gillsand's joiner yard to holding down the Port Sunshine for Sick Boy.
    • Les: "They say that aboot skinny guys. Aw prick n ribs.''
      A good description of Spud, and then later his young buddy Curtis with the stammer and dong.
    • Lesley: Whom appears in Trainspotting and is mentioned in Porno.
    • Renton reflects how he'd one day love to live in Amsterdam.
    • Renton and Sick Boy muse how nobody's going make a movie about them.
  • Country Matters: Par for the course in a Welsh novel. However, Matty's use stands out. Much more often than not, he simply refers to everyone else as "Cunt". Its no exaggeration to say this helps to make him one of the least sympathetic of the protagonists, and that really does say something when country matters is tossed around as freely as it is by almost every other main (and peripheral) character.
    • Curiously, he seems to have stopped this by the time Trainspotting occurs. This could mean he's more or possibly less dead inside by then, although with all the heroin he's consumed by that point you'd probably have to go with the former.
  • Demoted to Extra: Kelly, Davie and Second Prize, all of whom had narration duties in the Trainspotting.
  • Dinner and a Show: When Alexander brings Alison to visit his family at a barbecue shortly after she starts working for him, his sister and mother confront him over his separation from his wife and children.
  • Doomed by Canon: Anybody who's already read Trainspotting will already know that Matty and Tommy will die of AIDS. By the end of Skagboys, the final "Notes On An Epidemic" chapter lists a number of HIV positive patients, one of whom is Matty.
    • Likewise, Mark's older brother Billy will be killed in an IRA ambush while serving with the British Army in Northern Ireland.
    • A less fatal example for Second Prize. While his alcoholism is quite dysfunctional in this novel, he eventually gets to the point where he can kick the habit, train for another shot at professional football and sip an orange juice. But Trainspotting shows that the sobriety didn't last. It took much longer until the time of Porno before it stuck and even at that, he's Off the Wagon by the time Dead Men's Trousers rolls around.
    • The last chapter has Renton and Sick Boy poignantly affirming their friendship, and firmly announcing that they will face cold turkey and leave heroin behind. As a prequel to Trainspotting, we know it won't stick. Sure enough, the novel ends with the phone going off, almost certainly from their dealer.
  • Door Stopper: Clocking in at 563 pages, a goldmine for Welsh fans.
  • Expy: Keezbo is what Juice Terry could have been if he started on heroin, supported Hearts and had ginger hair. They're both very successful with the ladies despite their weight, and have a penchant for breaking and entering.
  • Freestate Amsterdam: Obviously the shore leave of choice for the gang while "working" the Sealink ferries.
  • Going Cold Turkey: Perhaps the ultimate fear of any budding Scottish junkie. Eventually they're forced to endure several months of rehab in a Fife clinic. It doesn't work in the slightest.
  • Hollywood Dateless: Really Mark? Shags with eighteen different girls and counting at the age of 22? Even if some were rubbish, that's still more than the average reader can hope to achieve in their lifetime. Its only by frequency comparison that he can be said to be going through a dry spell relative to Sick Boy.
    • Averted by Spud, who has only had three encounters by this point.
  • Hypocrite: Mark is notably disgusted that Billy would happily bang women in their "ma's hoose". A bit rich to judge someone so harshly based on morals of keeping sexuality and family separate, considering he regularly jacked off his mentally-disabled brother (regardless of altruistic intent).
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: The gang's more disturbing struggles with heroin really kick off in Junk Dilemmas No. 1-4, with trademark italics. This is an important Call-Forward to Trainspotting. And then you have The Rehab Diaries, intermittently charting 45 days of Renton's cold turkey at St. Monan's. Also, there's Notes On An Epidemic 1-7, explaining the myriad events leading to the skag addiction cum HIV infestation Edinburgh played host to in the eighties.
    • The chapter groupings include: Tempted, Falling, Cold, Thawing, Ocean and Drought, apparently using the metaphor of the spread of disease as an unfortunate accident and the tribulations of attempting to live with it inside you.
  • I Have This Friend: In a Call-Back to Alison's use of a strap-on on Sick Boy, Sick Boy tells Renton he knows someone who did it and asks Renton if he thinks that the guy is gay for allowing her to do it. He manages to deflect it to someone that they both consider to be Ambiguously Gay.
  • The Nothing After Death: Renton believes this happens after we die. He also thinks we were like this for an eternity before we were born, it's just that uneventful that we can't remember it.
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: Inverted by Mark's justification of the hand jobs he gave Wee Davie when he watched Mary Marquis on Friday nights. He says he never took any pleasure in it himself, and believed it was something Davie would have done himself if he could have, and that Davie appreciated it.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: The original novel informs us that Begbie and Tommy got into a closely matched fight which nearly finished their friendship. Many fans were anticipating this event's full description in the prequel, but it doesn't happen. While a friendly boxing fight (which Tommy won) is mentioned, the epic brawl seems to take place in between the books. Possibly it will emerge as a short story to be published later by Welsh.
  • Pet the Dog: When the core five plus Keezbo screw over Conrald Donaldson QC's luxury home, they discover that the Spanish house maid has swallowed a lethal cocktail of painkillers and vodka. Renton takes action, inducing her to vomit it all up with the help of the boys and getting her to hospital in a taxi with Spud (who broke his arm while trying to switch off the smoke alarm for Begbie).
    • In return, she agrees to lie on their behalf as though she came back from the hospital after the robbery.
  • Place Worse Than Death: Wester Hailes has this reputation for Leithers, perhaps more so here than in any other Welsh novel.
  • Scary Teeth: We hear about the decline of Renton's teeth from white to yellow and Matty's from yellow to brownish. Toothpaste isn't as valuable as heroin to these lads.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Amongst a wide array of characters. Done particularly poignantly when covering Billy and the Renton parents, and also so for Alison in the light of her mother's death to breast cancer.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Begbie is a damn good singer when the occasion calls.
    Franco’s voice is something tae hear, it’s like wi it bein Hogmanay, he’s absorbed just the right amount ay alcohol n good vibes and they intersect at this wonderous vector as he briefly becomes something else, this force ay grace and soul.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Before Renton and Sick Boy started to actively resent each other and eventually turn mutually treacherous, they just pantomimed insulting each other for their own amusement and that of others.
  • Wretched Hive: Leith, where most of the economy was built around the "now practically defunct" port of Edinburgh. If it weren't part of the city it would clearly be a Dying Town.