Right off the bat, yes the title is brilliant: It both makes me laugh and makes me feel like a right ponce (because I DID love school! And I DO love work!). Welsh's breakout novel Trainspotting holds a dear place in my heart. The way Welsh used various levels of Scottish dialect for different characters, in places it was like a foreign language, forced you to slow down and feel the sound of the words in your mouth. Only Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange has done a better job of rendering the contents of a drugged-up young man's mind as vicious and beautiful poetry. Trainspotting, and the hit movie spawned from it, made Irvine Welsh rich and famous. He spends a lot of time here in the Bay Area: I once spied him at a party at the Bambuddha Lounge, where every time I glanced at him he was scribbling on a slip of paper -- signing autographs, he was -- for anyone who asked, all night long. If you're an Edinburgh Castle regular, you may have also seen him give a reading there, and if you're like me you may have just nodded and laughed at random intervals because ye didnae ken a feckin word but ye hud a grand oul piss-up ennywey, ha hoor sor.
What I'm trying to say is that I've always had generally positive feelings toward oul' Irvine, and when I picked up If You Liked School, You'll Love Work, I was genuinely insulted by what a bloody mess it is. Containing four short stories (including the title story) and one long novella entitled "The Kingdom Of Fife," the book is about as nuanced as a terrible dirty joke. I say this as someone who is not reflexively offended by stuff. I thought Borat was a brilliant film, for example, and I differ with fellow KQED blogger Paula Rogers, who found the work of underground comics god R. Crumb to be upsettingly misogynist and racist. So Irvine Welsh had an extremely high bar to cross for me to say this: the stories in this book are almost across-the-board misogynist, and in places, racist as well. But more offensive to me is the fact that they are lazy, unfunny, and poorly written.
The collection kicks off with "Rattlesnakes." Three San Francisco residents on their way back from Burning Man get stranded in the Nevada desert. The protagonist, Eugene, is a third wheel, tagging along with his friend Scott and lusting after Scott's girlfriend Madeline. Out of gas and camping on the roadside, Eugene gets bit by a rattlesnake, in a very unfortunate spot. (Guess where! Just GUESS.) A tussle ensues over which half of the horrified couple gets to suck the poison out, and just when it seems like it couldn't get much wackier, folks, they're set upon by Mexican highway bandits. Despite a career of making fascinating anti-heroes out of Scottish street toughs, Welsh opts to depict these guys with a level of compassionate nuance not seen since the Frito Bandito: "--Two faggots and a dirty leetal lady, Alejandro said evenly, his features creasing up in malice."
"The D.O.G.S. of Lincoln Park" takes place in Chicago and centers on a group of backstabbing, careerist female friends. They are the "D.O.G.S." of the title: "Desperate obsessive girl snobs." One of them loses her papillon, Toto, and turns to her neighbor for help. Her neighbor happens to be a Korean chef with a penchant for wielding knives. "...blade very very sharp. Can easy sever four inches of bamboo." Consider this for a moment: A menacing asian swordsman chef... a missing dog -- if you're thinking, oh please god, he couldn't possibly be going THERE -- you'd be wrong. It ends with an allegedly humorous twist, but still: lazy, dumb, bad. Like a bloody and X-rated version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the stories all set up a ridiculous situation and then solve it with an even more ridiculous twist at the end.
Female characters in this book fall into two general categories. There's the skinny, bitchy, sexy but insane coke-fueled harpy, and there's the fat, pathetic, lonely, disgusting old harridan. In the latter category is the title character of "Miss Arizona," a faded beauty queen once married to a film director, desperate for attention from a young biographer who comes to ask questions. A cross between Sunset Boulevard and Psycho, it keeps all the plot holes of both and the clever writing of neither. "The Kingdom Of Fife" has a little bit more to recommend it, perhaps because Welsh is back on home turf. What had seemed like a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue turns sour outside the reaches of Scotland: his American characters all talk slightly wrong. The final, longest story takes place in Cowdenbeath, a town in Fife, Scotland, and concerns various characters surrounding the horse tracks and stables there. A burnout ex-jockey lusts after a pair of pretty young show jumpers, and one of them, Jenni, slowly cottons on to the fact that her tatooed gruff old dad is a major player in local organized crime. But even this one story has plenty of groaningly ridiculous plot elements, and Welsh's trademark dialect writing feels like a party trick.
I'm bewildered. The guy is on the masthead of Tin House. Is literary credibility something we can revoke? Is there a license we can pull? I guess not. I haven't read any Irvine Welsh books since Trainspotting, so maybe this decline has been ongoing. Maybe he just decided that there was no money in crafting literature, especially if your core readership are the same guys who made Jackass number one at the box office. Or perhaps Welsh was pressed to deliver the second in a two-book deal? His last novel Bedroom Secrets Of Master Chefs just came out in paperback, and this followup is coming right on its heels. In the afterword, Irvine Welsh thanks his screenwriting partner for "providing me with the space to complete these stories, at a period when demands on our time were particularly high." Bingo. Maybe someday he'll have time to compose another masterpiece. Meanwhile, this outing is for the hardcore fans only. To misquote Dylan Thomas's assessment of Flann O'Brien: this is just the book to give your brother, if he is a loud, dirty, boozy boy. But he's just about the only one who'll enjoy it.