Porno – Irvine Welsh

It’s possible to argue that the lifestyle depicted in Irvine Welsh’s breakout novel Trainspotting was so dead-end that a sequel could only prove depressing and, ultimately, useless. Who wants to read about a bunch of hapless, scamming junkies, ten years after they’ve (all but one) blown their big chance? To advance such an argument is to discount the resilience and determination of the hardcore scammer, something Welsh understands. So in Porno, he’s taken the reader back to Edinburgh, and re-connected all the Trainspotting characters, added a few side players, and put together one of the most absorbing pieces of semi-mainstream fiction around.

Porno is primarily narrated by Simon “Sick Boy” Reynolds, who’s fueled by a mixture of resentment towards Mark Renton, the guy who ripped him and everyone else off at the end of Trainspotting, and the insatiable desire to make money, preferably by scamming someone else. Reynolds seems to firmly believe that a score’s not a score unless someone else has been taken. It’s not enough for him to win; others, especially those who’ve come to trust him, must lose. He’s a sociopath.

Two other characters from the first book, Begbie and Spud, have problems of their own. Begbie’s newly released from prison and hot on Renton’s trail in search of bloody revenge. Spud’s still a junkie, but he’s developed ambition from somewhere and is attempting to write a history of lower-class Leith, as much to prove to his estranged girlfriend that he’s a worthwhile human being as to see his name in print. Renton, for his part, is living in Amsterdam, unhappy with his girlfriend but a successful club-owner.

Porno gets its title from Reynolds’ latest scam: he’s bought a pub and—while convincing the local authorities that he’s going to clean it up and attempt, almost single-handedly, a gentrification of Leith’s downtown—is filming porn videos in the back room, starring a cast of local amateurs and a college student, Nikki Fuller-Smith, who (for the moment) is in love, or something like it, with him. Of course, she’s got her own reasons for getting in front of the camera. In Irvine Welsh’s world, everybody’s got the motivation they display to others as well as the creeping, often vaguely criminal ambitions that hide in their dark hearts.

Welsh, as before, allows each of the major players to narrate chapters in turn. Only Spud and Begbie continue to rattle on in the phonetic, sometimes nearly incomprehensible Scottish slang that marked the first novel. Two things are helpful with these chapters: reading them aloud (as long as no one else is in the house) and using Reynolds’ and Renton’s chapters as Rosetta stones of a sort, as they tend to lapse into slang only at moments of high agitation.

Porno is an exciting book. It moves quickly, and the threat of violence that hovers over so much of its plot—Renton has come back to Leith to invest in Reynolds’ porn film, but can he get in and out of town without Begbie catching him?—makes it more of a straightforward thriller than the first book, which tended to feel like a bunch of stoners sitting around telling stories. Welsh’s point seems to be that while it is possible to move forward, it doesn’t take much at all to haul people back to where they came from. And indeed, by the time the book ends, everyone is, to one extent or another, back where they started. But it’s been a hell of a ride in the meantime.

Phil Freeman