Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Released April 2015
Reviewed by Melanie Page
I have had a somewhat quiet literary love affair with Scotsman Irvine Welsh since 2004, when I first read his debut novel, Trainspotting, set in Edinburgh. If you’ve seen the movie of the same name, bravo; if you haven’t read the book, though, you are missing out of some of the most gawd-awful and disgusting moments you would think possible. But with Irvine Welsh, things can always get worse, more depraved, more disgusting. If the movies were absolutely true to the books, they couldn’t be released in theater. Welsh’s most recent novel, A Decent Ride, which takes readers back to Edinburgh, stars “Juice” Terry Lawson, cabbie, occasional drug delivery guy, occasional porn actor, and always-all-the-time sex maniac with a huge penis. Terry is told by doctors that his heart is under too much strain and that he cannot stress it, or he will die. This includes no sexual activity of any kind!
While the synopsis of the novel suggests this is Terry’s story, Jonty, too, plays a big role. Jonty is a dopey “slow” guy trying to get through life, happy with his McNuggets, painting houses, and girlfriend, Jinty. But then, Jinty takes too much cocaine in a pub bathroom, heads home to their apartment across the street, and promptly dies on the couch. I agonized over which was the case: Jonty is too stupid to know she’s dead, or he knows she’s dead and is pretending it’s not the case. There are many subplots in the novel that are not hard to remember, but keep the novel from getting one-track and predictable.
No matter where you turn in a Welsh novel, there are no good people. None. You simply look at the principles of the characters and find the ones that do less evil. For instance, Terry has fingers in ever shady part of society, but he doesn’t have sex with minors, he never pays for sex, he never forces women into sexual activity, and he (almost) always wears a condom on account of the AIDs epidemic of the 1980s (a topic Welsh covers in Trainspotting). Granted, he has four kids (at least four the government has pinned on him) from going “bareback” a few times, but if you imagine this guy who has sex with multiple women every day, it’s not so bad, right?! Your brain gets twisted by Welsh into thinking this makes Terry a good person.
Sometimes readers get a kick in the shins to remind them that Terry’s a bad guy, like the time he describes what lengths he would have gone to to abort those fetuses (it’s disgusting). He “tries” to connect to his kids when their moms yell at Terry. He takes the two youngest, Guillaume and the Ginger Bastard (he doesn’t even tell us this kid’s name), to see Up, the Disney film, and Terry is all complaints (and also fricken’ funny):
“Ya cunt, ah wis nearly fuckin greetin when the auld bastard wis talkin aboot ehs
deid wife n how they wanted bairns n couldnae huv them! Ah felt like telling um, shoutin at the screen: take these two wee fuckers, cause ah’m n wantin thum! Popcorn, hoat dogs, ice cream, Twixes, the fuckin lot, the greedy wee cunts!”
Did I mention most of the book is written in dialect? No? I’ll get back to that. Basically, Welsh lets readers believe that some of the horrible things his characters do are normal--to a surprising extent even--but then brings us back by making us feel bad occasionally, often in situations involving children.
Jonty, due to his slow mentality, is a character you feel bad for the whole way through. He has standards, too: no drugs, especially “the devil’s poodir”; no doing bad things; and no making people feel bad. He’s so simple that you want things to go right for him. After Jinty is clearly (to the reader) dead, Jonty goes to the McDonald’s a lot. He thinks his McDonald’s is the best, and even tells a millionaire later on that the McDonalds’ in New York City can’t be nearly as good as his. As if anyone cares about the quality of a McDonald’s! When the fast food chain stops selling the “After Eight” McFlurry (a flavor not found in the U.S.), Jonty is upset. The lady at the counter tells him it was promotional food, to see if there is interest. Jonty wants to know how he can express his interest in having more, and the cashier doesn’t know. He wants to fill out a form or something to get his ice cream back. Meanwhile, I’m rooting for this simpleton, even though I know that interest is show in the number of people who bought the product while it was available. But, no Welsh character is a good person. Here are just a few of Jonty’s other activities:
● Incest (he’s not the only one in the book who does it)
● Grave exhuming (not legally, not the only one)
● Hiding a dead body
I wrote to Welsh on Twitter, who had something to say about Jonty:
Irvine Welsh’s language gives the novel nuance and brings people to life. Fans everywhere wet themselves when Welsh sets his books in Edinburgh, possibly because it means we are guaranteed to read some dialect. But the voices aren’t all the same. Jonty, originally from the countryside, has a much more muddled-looking dialect than Terry, who is from the city. Sick Boy, a main character from Trainspotting who is a minor character in A Decent Ride, is from Scotland, but has lived in London for over a decade, so he speaks in a more standard English. American businessman Ronnie, who we’re basically told is a fictitious Donald Trump, speaks in standard English, but that doesn’t mean he’s the “correct” speaker. When he tells people where he is, it’s spelled “Edinboro,” which is exactly how I say it (and now I’m positive I say it wrong and stupidly).
Now, if you struggle in general with dialects, you’ll definitely feel frustrated with A Decent Ride. I know there are copies of Welsh’s books that come with a Scottish slang dictionary in the back, but my library copy of A Decent Ride does not. Here’s a test of whether or not you need a dictionary: “Ah ken how she feels cause studyin must be awfay hard. Like whin ah wis at the skill. Ah found it hard tae concentrate, n that’s whin a wis thaire!” Did you get that Jonty was thinking, I know how she feels because studying must be awfully hard. Like when I was at school. I found it hard to concentrate, and that’s when I was there!
The last thing, which I’m sure every reviewer will mention, is Welsh’s treatment of women. In A Decent Ride, you’ll find few women (despite all the sex) because they are prostitutes, cab riders with no names, Jinty (a prostitute who almost immediately dies), a couple of horrible mothers in minor roles, “Suicidal Sal” (a girl who’s going to kill herself but is cured by Terry’s giant penis), and fat Karen (also cured with penis). What does this mean? It reassures me that Welsh is a boys’ club sort of writer, making his immersive, hilarious, revolting novels my dirty secret.
Melanie Page has an MFA from the University of Notre Dame and is an adjunct instructor in Indiana. She is the creator of Grab the Lapels, a site that publishes book reviews and interviews of folks who identify as women at grabthelapels.com.