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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"Reheated Cabbage", fun tales from the wild side

Reheated Cabbage: Tales of Chemical Degeneration- Irwine Welsh

As many people from my generation, "Trainspotting" was among my favourite films when I was a teenager. But even more than the movie (or the soundtrack) I loved Irvine Welsh's book, an incredibly addictive trip, an awesome burst of energy translated into paper. But I admit that after "Trainspotting" I refused to read anything else from him, suspecting his books were going to be too similar, so the magic would eventually dissappear. Many years have passed now, so I thought it was safe to reintroduce myself into the "Welsh territory".

Because that's what "Reheated Cabbage" is: pure Irvine Welsh from the "Trainspotting" era, with one stunning exception. This miscellaneous collection of seven old, out-of-print stories from 1994 to 2000, and just one new tale brings us back to that wild, grey, suburban and desolated Edimburgh. Welsh himself warns the reader in his acknowledgements that this is "one of those toe-curling Scotsploitation or drugsploitation anthologies that prevailed in the nineties, for which I have to assume at least some culpability. Sorry about that." He's right, but there's no need to apologise.

Drugs, violence, football scumbags (hooligans), music, rough sex, ruined & hopeless young (European white trash) and not so young adults and even more drugs, that's the world recreated in this stories. After many years, I was again impressed by the dynamism of Welsh's writing. What he says is brutal, insane and cruel, yet there's no time for depression here: something is always going on, his narrative grabs you... and well.. kicks your lazy ass. His prose is vital, amazingly vital.

Therefore, his characters are very much alive, viscerally alive. They are driven by rampage, addictions, frustration, lack of direction or just rage. Sometimes Welsh goes to the very extreme, like on "A Fault on the Line", presenting us a sociopath who has to confront a brutal situation affecting his wife. The author crosses the line, arriving to the (amusing) caricature, but he's still capable of convincingly dissecting the despicable mind of that human being. On "The Rosewell Incident", he "crosses" another line, entering sci-fi territory, probably being the less significant piece of the lot (despite being quite hilarious).

Because let's face it, Welsh has an ability to expose violence and inacceptable behaviours in ways that will make you laugh. In "Elspeth's Boyfriend", one of the best tales of this collection, he does so recovering the "Trainspotting" character of Begbie on a family dinner for Christmas. The common, easily recognisable scenario, turns to a "Cold War" battlefied where the reader is expecting the beginning of the war. And when it arrives, it is hilarious, but also revealling. Like in "Victor Spoils" where the combination of drugs, alcohol and a peculiar sense of friendship will matter more than the love for the same woman.

But there's more than Welsh-by-numbers here. On "The State of the Party", under the background of Primal Scream, house & britpop scene, tones of acids, wild parties, unsubstantial sex and surreal and dangerous situations there's a character trying to deal with the death of a mate, probably realising, for the first time, there has to be something more. From crazy fun to a moving comedown that insinuates the "end of the party". And there's the aforementioned exception, the last and only new story, "I am Miami". Welsh confronts his trademark's world (Terry Lawson character included) with the abysmal feelings of guilt, self-repression, religious fanatism and desperation of Albert Black, a retired schoolteacher destroyed by the death of his wife. The mix could have been a disaster, but Welsh turns it into a fierce, strangely charming and life-affirming tale. The stand-out of "Reheated Cabbage".

Overall a fun, highly absorbing, vital and very recommendable collection.

SCORE: 7/10

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