By Irvine Welsh (W.W. Norton)
By Brian Varney
If you’re having trouble placing the familiar-sounding name (as I was upon receiving this book in the mail), Irvine Welsh is the man responsible for the book Trainspotting, the film adapatation of which became an underground sensation a decade and a half or so ago. Though I did my undergroundly duty and watched the movie upon its release, I found it so repugnant that I never bothered to read the book or do further inspection of Welsh’s bibliography.
While fans of the movie, and perhaps even the author himself, might regard my disgust as a badge of honor or somesuch, I do want to defend my reaction a bit. I’m not especially squeamish when it comes to reading – Hubert Selby Jr. is one of my favorite authors, and I’m a big fan of folks like Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy. My disgust with Trainspotting came more from its seeming celebration of ugliness for no reason other than the fact that it’s ugly. I have no problem with literature that deals with the unseemly, but if it’s going to enthrall me, there’s got to be a better reason than Trainspotting‘s.
If You Liked School… is a collection of five short stories. They take place all over the world and host a variety of characters, but together, they present a sort of mosaic with characters and plotlines ranging from the monstrous to the merely pathetic. “Miss Arizona” takes place in the same Texas as Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and is basically an Edgar Allen Poe story with the Gothic architecture replaced by desert landscapes. Kinda fun, but the “surprise” ending is about as easy to see coming as a flashlight in the dark.
Of the five stories, my favorite, is probably the titular story, which concerns a ne’er-do-well bar owner who tries to balance his regular routine of getting drunk and screwing anything that moves with a visit from his teenage daughter, who wants to like her father in spite of all visual evidence telling her to do otherwise. Plotwise, it’s not much of a story, but it’s funny and filled with delightfully foul-mouthed British slang. At the other end of the spectrum is opener “Rattlesnakes,” a study of machismo and homophobia with all the subtlety of a hammer to the face whose plot builds to its unlikely climax (see what I did there?) by stacking improbabilities on top of greater improbabilities.
The end result is a decent collection that’ll probably do the most business in hip record stores, the kind that have a small fiction section composed of books by folks like Bukowski, Kerouac, Burroughs, Palahniuk, and Henry Rollins. If You Liked School… should reside comfortably on these shelves and appeal to the people who shop for books there.