In the mid-eighties we had Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis' drug-steeped, alcohol-soaked, sex-saturated saga of disaffected youth set in Los Angeles, and Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney's East Coast version of the same. With attitudes that fluctuated between boastful self-regard and whinny self-loathing, Ellis and McInerney seemed to speak for a generation of Americans with time on their hands, money in their pockets and nothing on their minds.
Now we have Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh's drug-steeped, alcohol-soaked, sex-saturated saga of disaffected youth set in Edinburgh, Scotland. The characters are working-class rather than wealthy and their drug of choice is heroin rather than cocaine, but otherwise the story remains the same: young people desperately seeking to fill their inner void.
The novel, published in 1993, was a smash, and the film version became the second biggest box-office hit in Britain's history. Both were released simultaneously in America this summer, just about the time the nation's style sections were heralding the return of heroin - snorted, not shot. The Scots, however, stuck to needles: Glasgow is said to be riddled with mainlining junkies.
For sure, Trainspotting had the right stuff to make it an instant cult classic. Welsh, like McInerney, juggles sincerity and cynicism, ennui and energy, fashionable despair and smarmy sentimentality in his novel, a loose narrative that follows a group of mates struggling to get by in Leith, a suburb of Edinburgh. Most of them are unemployed, some of them steal, all of them live for sex, drugs and violence. Several die from AIDS, others carry on with their scruffy, chemicallly compromised lives, survivors taking solace in each other's company.
During the three years between his debuts on both sides of the Atlantic, Welsh has produced two other best-sellers and is working on a television series, a BBC movie and a stage play. Most recently, he has published his fourth book, Ecstasy (W.W. Norton, 276 pp), a trio of novenas that covers familiar turf - working-class ravers (to rave is to take the drug ecstasy and dance all night) and nutters who torment and humiliate each other in a tender sort of way. Tender, for all they really want is a little loving kindness - corny as that may sound to hipsters hoping to find in these pages more hoary stories of heroin-addled antiheroes.
Ecstasy, like Trainspotting, is fun to read, especially for Americans with a taste for Scottish dialect. "Whoah ... slow doon thair gadgie ... Ye meet this bird whae's oot fir the first time since she escaped this straight-peg, she's taken her first ever ekcy, you're E'd up and yir talkin love?" asks one Leith raver of another. "Sounds a wee bit like the chemical love to me." London critics have taken Welsh to task for fluffing other brogues - one of his characters hails from the West Country, for example, and talks with z's and oi's - "Oi rulz out nuttin at no toimes" - but that's a British complaint.
The first of Ecstasy's three tales, "Lorraine Goes to Livingston"' is a pleasantly contrived confection involving Rebecca, the fat and fatuous writer of Miss May Regency romance novels, and her dissolute husband, Perky. As might be expected given Rebecca's profession, the story unfolds along two narratives - what happens to the characters in Welsh's story, and what happens to the characters in Rebecca's work-in-progress, her 14th book interrupted when the overweight authoress falls flat on her face from a chocolate-induced stroke.
In fact, "Lorraine Goes to Livingston" is an excuse for Welsh to send up the romance genre. Rebecca's work-in-progress is a tepid version of Tom Jones - we are treated to several passages from the manuscript - starring the swashbuckling Marcus Cox, a bullish young blood with his sword aimed at Lorraine, the obligatory ingenue under Miss May's care. In reality, …