Irvine Welsh

"If You Liked School, You'll Love Work"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JAN 15, 2008)

"She smiled at me, and settled back into her chair like a big cat, content with her drink and her audience of one.—Honey, as you said, he was number four. I’ve married for love, sex, and money but by the time you’re on your fourth your expectations are pretty low."

If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work is a collection of four short stories and one novella by Irvine Welsh. This is really a diverse collection that serves to showcase Welsh’s remarkable ability to create a wide range of voices. Unfortunately, the stories also range in effectiveness. One story is fantastic, one reads like some sort of tacky porn venture, two were decently dark with shades of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, and one, well I simply couldn’t read it.

The first story is this collection is called Rattlesnakes, and it concerns three young drugged-up-to the-eyeballs Americans who are traveling across the desert by car when an accident interrupts their journey. One of the young men is bitten in the genitals by, you guessed it, a rattlesnake, and then it’s left to his male companion to suck out the venom. Things go downhill from there. And just as I thought this story couldn’t get worse, it degenerates when two pissed-off Mexicans arrive, and using a cell phone, an impromptu, forced porno film takes place.

The DOGS of Lincoln Park involves a group of insipid, young, shallow and materialistic young women who meet once a week for lunch at the Mystic East restaurant. They gossip and bitch about their mutual acquaintances and the maliciously spent lunch hour serves to reinforce their fragile air of superiority:

Kendra supposed that they were typical of many young, hard-working (Stacie excepted!), wealthy urban professionals. Apart from the demands of commerce, they had been unable to come up with suitable reasons for their ennui, and had overindulged in illegal drugs and alcohol as a convenient repository for their tired, listless, alienated behavior. Then they discovered the beauty of rehab. They’d taken to showing up at lunch dates, perky, superior and focused, hand placed strategically over the wine glass, a satisfied smile at the waiter.—Rehab, they’d whisper blissfully to their dining partners, as they discreetly washed down a Xanax with the proffered mineral water.

One of the young women, Kendra has a Papillon, named Toto. He goes missing one day, and she suspects he’s become the key ingredient in a gourmet dish. This somewhat-entertaining tale rests on the antics of Kendra and her impossibly superficial, vacuous friends. However, with a Roald Dahl twist to the plot, the story relies on caricatures of vapid, materialistic women rather than attempting to portray real, solid characters.

Miss Arizona is an enjoyable tale that goes off the deep end at its conclusion. This story involves Raymond Wilson Butler, a former porno director living in Phoenix, Arizona. Fascinated by his long-deceased idol, and fellow film director Glen Halliday, he begins visiting Yolanda, the director’s widow, “an ol gal, who looked like she’d been rode hard and put away wet.” While Raymond ostensibly visits Yolanda in order to gather information about Halliday, he discovers that Yolanda, an amateur taxidermist, is a fascinating character in her own right. Massively obese, and the victim of bad plastic surgery, Yolanda insists in lolling around in bathing suits surrounded by dead animals that she has stuffed and skillfully preserved. Yolanda is one of the most bizarre characters Raymond has ever met, and he finds himself:

thinking about Yolanda and her needy hunger. Cravin so much from people but lockin herself away, just incubatin that loneliness. So that when someone did come into her life, her desperation flooded them.

Raymond, fascinated by Yolanda’s yarns, begins to feel a slight obligation to her. Stuck way out in the desert, living in a man-made oasis, lonely Yolanda hungers for a male guest. But Raymond’s career is on the rise, and he’s moving from being a has-been to a hot commodity in Hollywood, and this means no more visits to Yolanda….While I enjoyed Miss Arizona and was completely taken off-guard by the story’s conclusion, at the same time I thought the Roald Dahl style ending was a disappointment.

My favorite story in the entire collection is If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work. I hope that some ambitious film director has the wherewithal to buy the rights to this story and make a film of it. I can’t help but see Ray Winstone in the role of the story’s protagonist, Michael, a middle-aged, divorced British ex-pat who now lives on the Costa Brava. Here he runs a pub that’s frequented by fellow ex-pats and tourists. Michael’s plump barmaid, the good natured, and married Cynthia is his regular bed-partner, and if she ever shows a sign of losing weight, Michael, who prefers to grab “a big fat, wobbly arse and those flabby love handle, and of course, those floppy great tits,” is ready to ply her full of pizza in order to maintain “all that beef.”

Owning a pub in a holiday region allows Michael to prey on the wives of his fellow ex pats, and also to initiate temporary sexual relationships with tourists passing through. For someone like Michael, a man who acts with “sheer bleedin indifference” to the many objectified women in his life, this is the perfect set-up. With his sexual appetites met on a regular basis by Cynthia, he still has free time and plenty of opportunity to hunt for new “skirt”:

After all, I had a go at that Marcia slag myself the other night. Bit thin for my tastes, but there’s something about a skinny bird pushing forty. If they ain’t let themselves go by then, they got to have one big vice. I’ve found through experience that it’s inevitably shagging. A skinny tart pushing forty is usually a dirty slag; pretty game for anything once you get past the first hurdle. It’s that first fence that’s often the problem. Giving it the old cock-teaser malarkey again, Marce was. Cut to the chase and grabbed her outside the toilets. She only went and slapped my bleedin chops, hitting me with the old innocent routine before scarpering. Told her it was a fair cop, that I must have misread the signs. Jack Daniel’s’ll do that for you.

Michael isn’t above manipulating his male friends either—especially if there’s a chance he can sneak in and nail one of his friends’ wives. When it comes to sex, it’s a no-holds barred situation. Michael’s perfect arrangement is threatened, however, when his truculent teenage daughter arrives for an extended visit.

If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work is written consistently in readable slang, but it doesn’t interfere with the flow of the story and just adds to the story’s enjoyment and its very authentic voice. What I loved about this story is its absoluteness, its consistency, and the fact Welsh doesn’t stoop to character redemption here.

And this brings me to the novella The Kingdom of Fife. Now, I am just going to give you two samples of the prose written in Scottish dialect, and admit that I could not read this story. Give me an 800 page Victorian multi-plot novel, and I’ll read it. Give me a book of poetry, and I’ll read it, but The Kingdom of Fife was beyond my ability. I tried, dear reader, I tried. I tried reading it silently, and I read reading it aloud. I failed. If you can read the entire story, then my hat’s off to you. Excerpts are included here for you to judge for yourself—could you read over 180 pages of this?

No thit thir’s any in the day. The hale high street’s as deid as a Tel Aviv
disco flair. Means thit the Duke’s goat a captive audience ay two fir ehs
tale.—Bit eh’s cowpin ewey at this piece n she’s noo jist takin the fuckin
loat, it’s rattlin oan the side, man! This is yin dirty hoor, wider thin the
fuckin Nile, ya cunt. Aye dinnae talk Mississippi tae me. So eh pills oot
n turns ur ower n whaps it tae uy up the fuckin chorus n it’s as tight as a
drum n eh’s gittin a decent ride ott ay it at last. The Duke lits oot a wee belch n steels ehs beer oan the bar.

Or this:

They aw huv a giggle at that yin n wi bang the glesses ay black gold thegither like in days gone by. But no quite, cause eftir this scoop ah’m gittin picked up by Jenni n wir gaun through tae Kirkcaldy tae thon poetry slam thit she’s goat ma name doon fir. Showed hur some ay the stuff ah’d been writin whin ah wis tarried up; cathartic originally, helped ays tae git ower the shock about Kravy. She takes a wee sketch at it n says ah’ve goat talent. Ah’ll take that, ya hoor.

Hint: I was most successful when I read a page out loud. It is possible to read it as phonetically written. The problem is that the process was painstakingly slow, and I wasn’t grasping the action because I was struggling to understand the dialect. Writing in dialect is always problematic, and there’s always the danger of making the reader slow down from the story in order to grasp the language. It’s a trade-off, and here, at least for me, I couldn’t be bothered to painstakingly try to decipher what the author was saying. Did I miss something wonderful? Perhaps--but I avoided a headache.

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About the Author:

Irvine WelshIrvine Welsh was born in Leith in 1958 and was raised in a suburb of Edinburgh, Scotland. His mother worked as a waitress, his father was a dock worker then a carpet salesman, who died when Welsh was 25. Welsh left Ainslie Park Secondary School when he was 16 and then completed a City and Guilds course in electrical engineering. He became an apprentice TV repairman until an electric shock persuaded him to move on to a series of other jobs. He left Edinburgh for the London punk scene in 1978. In 1982, he realized that he had a drug problem and cleaned up by the mid-80's. He returned to his native city where he worked in the Council's housing department. He gained a degree in computer science and studied for an MBA at Heriot Watt University.

Welsh gained notoriety with his first novel, Trainspotting for its depiction of Edinburgh heroin culture and won the Scottish Arts Council Book Award and was longlisted for the Booker Prize.

Irving moved to the U.S. in 2002 to teach at Columbia College in Chicago. It is there that he met his second wife, Beth Quinn, who is much younger than him. They married in 2005. He was previously married to Anne Ansty for almost 20 years.

He and Beth currently live in Dublin, Ireland. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014