Review: “If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work”

“It’s certainly a phenomenon in all walks of life. At one point you’ve got it. Then you lose it. Then it’s gone forever.”

From Sickboy’s mouth to God’s ear, courtesy the pen of Mr. Irvine Welsh. And with his latest scribblings, Welsh completes the circle. Sickboy’s Unifying Theory of Life: Beautifully fucking illustrated, in the form of If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work.

It’s difficult to tell if this collection is an attempt to cash in, an attempt to cash out, or just a bunch of failed experiments. One thing is certain, however: It’s far from Welsh’s best (a spot that I might reserve for Porno, though Glue is definitely in the running).

The first piece is Welsh with his “transgressive” knob dialed up to 11, its central plot element being a man who gets bit on the penis by a rattlesnake. True to this puerile genre of story, his best male friend offers to suck the poison out. Throw in a few descriptions of masturbation (clandestine and otherwise), some references to Burning Man, and forced homosexual fellatio at gunpoint, and … well, that’s pretty much it. It there was any point to it beyond a schoolboy snicker, it was lost on me.

Next up is another amusing — but mostly irrelevant — tale of British lower-class boys behaving badly abroad, in this case on a Spanish island. Our hero must juggle his drink, his “birds,” and his precarious grip on respectability. Again; that’s about it.

“The DOGS of Lincoln Park” brings Welsh Stateside to visit with some stuck-up girls in Chicago. He paints a pretty good picture of some thoroughly unlikeable women, then throws in a possible love interest in the form of a chef at an Asian restaurant. Apparently Welsh doesn’t realize that Asians are perhaps not as exotic to Americans as they are to Scots, because he wastes no time in trotting out all the old stereotypes: How are Koreans different from Chinese, really? Do they or do they not eat dogs? Do they have small penises? If one got me alone, would he kill me? Thankfully Welsh decides the last three in the negative, and we are left with yet another sketch that seems pointless to anyone who has more than a tourist’s-eye view of the U.S.

Unfortunately, Welsh compounds his mistake by offering up another story based in the States. This one follows a filmmaker, a refugee from the Hollywood scene who was raised in Texas — a fact that is apparently meant to explain why he constantly talks like a cowboy from a Pace Picante Sauce commercial. Some sample dialogue:

It was midday and the sun was at its cruelest and even an ol Texan boy like myself, living in LA til fairly recently, could sometimes forget how fierce it could be. Out there the bastard baked all the freshness out of the air, leavin it feelin like particles of iron in your lungs. As your throat seared your respiratory system started bangin and you sweated like a solitary truck-stop hooker gaspin goodbye as the last lusty buck in that convoy pulled on his dirty ol jeans.

Git a rope.

The plot isn’t much better, and it ends on a contrivance that would make the hacks who cranked out the stories for Tales from the Crypt comics groan.

It’s only the last story in the collection that redeems it, a novella called “Kingdom of Fife.” It’s no coincidence, either, that the only really worthwhile piece in the bunch brings Welsh back to his native Scotland. “Kingdom of Fife” proves that Welsh’s use of Scots dialect is more than just for show. He succeeds at it because it is here, on the grimy streets of Scottish cities, that he is truly “writing what he knows.”

The same tricks don’t work when he tries to portray American characters, because Welsh is decidedly not an American. He does appear to be Scottish through and through, however, and his curious characters (entirely new in this case, with no guest appearances from the Trainspotting gang) ring true here just as they have in earlier works. And the story itself is not bad. Nothing really to write home about, but an an enjoyable enough read.

So maybe I was too harsh there at first. If You Liked Work, You’ll Love School isn’t necessarily proof that Sickboy’s Unifying Theory has come home to roost in Welsh himself. It does illustrate the potential for a slide, however, and after the lackluster effort with Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs I was hoping Welsh would try a little harder.

Hopefully the fragments on display here are just that: Random pieces that Welsh was working on and almost discarded, only to rapidly rework into a form that would be worthy of publication here. Hopefully with his next work he’ll come back and deliver the goods.