We Are What We Speak

Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

We are what we speak. From Mark Twain to Zora Neale Hurston, writers have known that there is nothing so economical as dialect to distinguish a character who speaks the Queen's English from one who speaks the slave's.

The poet laureateship of Scottish vernacular hails back--at least in American consciousness--to Robert Burns. In this century, Harry Lauder, the cheery, whiskey-throated minstrel of postwar Scottish bonhomie, donned the laurel above his tam o' shanter with his "if ye kin say it's a bra, bricht, moonlicht nicht, thin yer all richt, ye ken," before passing it on to the likes of Billy Connolly and his canary-yellow Welly boots.

Then came Irvine Welsh. Ten years ago, Welsh laid claim to the title by blowing the haggis of the past to pieces. In novels like "Trainspotting" and "Marabou Stork Nightmares," in the stories of "Ecstasy," tartans unwove into tarts and kilt became a past participle. Welsh's Scotland was an urban wasteland of junkies and thieves. Best of all, the slurry, sentimental brogue of yesteryear became needle-sharp, ultra-hip poetry.

Welsh's latest novel, "Glue," is the tale of four families. Beginning "Round About 1970" (the title of the first section), Welsh introduces his quartet of Scottish "schemies," four boys born into the optimistic housing projects that were meant to do away with the working-class ghettos of Edinburgh. Carl and Billy are sons of men who work in the local factory; Gally's father is a "tea-leaf" in rhyming slang, filling their new flat with enough stolen merchandise to land him in jail; and Terry's soon follows his genitalia out the door and out of the lives of his young children.

Born into a common housing scheme, the boys also adopt a common moral scheme, explained most succinctly by Carl's father, the shop steward of the factory, to Wullie Wirrell, Billy's thoroughly decent father.

"--It's a difficult world now, no like the yin we grew up in, Duncan said. Ye never know what tae teach them. Ah mean, there's the basic stuff like back up yir mates, never cross a picket line ....

"--Nivir hit a lassie, Wullie nodded.

"--Definitely, Duncan agreed sternly, as Maria looked at him with a you-just-try-it-pal expression,--Nivir shop anybody tae the polis ....

"--... neither friend nor foe, Wullie added.

"--That's what ah think ah'll dae, replace the ten commandments wi ma ain ten commandments. They'd be better for kids thin that Spock, or any ay thaim. Buy a record every week, that'd would be one o' mine ... ye cannae go a week withoot a good tune tae look forward tae ...."

As we follow them through thick and thin, as budding football hooligans in the '80s, confused fathers in the '90s and battered philosophers slouching toward middle age at the turn of the millennium, the lads stick to their code of conduct like, well, glue. Neither milk nor cider nor beer nor Ecstasy can dilute their genes. Carl, the son of the man who needed new vinyl every week, becomes a world-famous DJ. Billy turns into a promising boxer. Gally, an HIV-positive junkie, vies with his father for prison time. And Terry, known as Juice Terry for dropping out of school to work on the old juice wagons that used to ply the schemes selling bottled soda, makes a virtual career of his inherited prowess as a "fanny merchant," with only a touch of good-natured, self-conscious guilt.

"Guilt and shaggin," he reflects, "they go the gither like fish n chips. Guilt and good shaggin. In Scotland ye goat Catholic guilt and Calvinist guilt. Maybe that's why Ecstasy really took oaf here."

Terry is not the only philosopher of the quartet. Welsh tells the story in alternating monologues through the decades, giving each his voice. Billy ponders the meaning of money, Gally the meaning of life. Carl, despite the ravages of drug abuse, taps into enough of his father's ruminating DNA to find the essential flaw in their moral scheme, the old prisoner's dilemma. "Everyone had to subscribe to the same one for it to work. If a few people took the piss and got away with it, everything collapsed."

But Terry is undoubtedly the most compelling of his mates, the Malvolio of the crew. After a midsummer night's round (in the virile 1980s) with a pair of teenage girls, Terry looks down at them like a corkscrew-coifed Puck. "In the night ah woke up and had a wee peek at they scarlet harlots. Sleep can be a cheatin [expletive deleted]; it's giein them a sortay bearing and demeanour ay innocence they didnae warrant. What the [expletive deleted] is that aw aboot? Sleep my erse, it's unconsciousness. Any undertaker could make a deid Charlie Manson look 'peaceful' in half an ooir." So why, at the end, does "Glue" lack the "Pulp Fiction" edge of "Trainspotting" and smell more like a middle-of-the-road made-for-HBO Hibernian "Big Chill"?

Perhaps one trouble is the firmness with which the characters are epoxied to one another. Welsh fixes each with equal time and an equal, indistinguishable layer of dialect and dialectical shellac. They may struggle, or pretend to struggle, to find their own characters. But they are stuck in language. And Welsh's marvelous poetry--thick as porridge in "Trainspotting"--is thin on the ground. Even Terry degenerates from Shakespearean sublime to Hallmark sociological sophistry.

"The grey gets in. The scheme, the government employment scheme, the dole office, the factory, the jail. Together they created a squalid stink of low expectation which could choke the life out of you if you let it. There was a time when Terry felt that he could keep it all at bay, when the weaponry in his social arsenal seemed substantial enough to just blow big Technicolor holes in it all. That was when he was Juice Terry, video, fanny merchant, and he could skate above the ice as deftly as Torvill and Dean. But struggle, survival, they were a young [expletive deleted] game."

While Scottish philosophy of the depth of, say, David Hume may be beyond our hero, one expects a little more surprise and a little less surface from Terry. And after wading through nearly 500 pages of dialect with the quartet of heroes over four decades, while one might not demand the linguistic thrills of "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses," one expects more from Welsh. Ultimately, "Glue" leaves the reader with a philosophical sigh. The best-laid plans of our best novelists aft gang aglay.


Ten years ago, Irvine Welsh blew the past to pieces. Tartans unwove into tarts and kilt became a past participle. Welsh's Scotland was an urban wasteland of junkies and thieves.

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