By Max Dunbar.
Irvine Welsh is in a class of his own. Whatever the flaws of his books, they have a seething life in them that rivets attention and an inventiveness with story and language that continually amuses and amazes. The elaborate choreography of his predators and victims as they circle each other through the bars, offices and ‘fitba’ terraces of Edinburgh seems powered by inexhaustibly rich reserves of desire, rage, guilt and scabrous humour.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with publishing trunk stories. Stephen King and Martin Amis did this to great effect in their respective collections. Many successful writers start out publishing five-thousand-worders in magazines read by twelve people or less and, because there’s no market for short stories, that’s the extent of their audience. A novelist’s best work can be thrown away on Arts Council-funded provincial zines; on the other hand, early short stories can be poor, confused efforts that should never be exposed to the white light of publication.
Most of the stories in Reheated Cabbage ‘are now out of print in their original format – usually one of those toe-curling Scotsploitation or drugsploitation anthologies that prevailed in the nineties,’ Welsh explains in his foreword, ‘for which I have to assume at least some culpability.’ The only piece that earns Welsh’s contrition is ‘The Rosewell Incident'; an overlong, badly written episode about aliens taking over the planet in coalition with Hibs casuals, this combines Welsh’s two worst features as a writer: his glorification of football violence, and his tendency to let his allegiances run away with him. And this when he’s neglected to include ‘The Best Brand of Football'; a lost story which is so much shorter and better.
Apart from that, though, we are back to the subversive magic of The Acid House. Combining surreality with face-to-the-kerb realism, this new collection reminds us of Welsh’s strength as a storyteller. He can simply put two characters in a room, start them talking – and that’s it: you’re hooked. Hardcore fans like me will get the pleasing jolt of recognition at new encounters with old faces like Franco Begbie and the phenomenal Juice Terry: Reheated Cabbage charts the edges of the rich and complex tapestry of working-class life that Welsh has been creating in his full-length novels.
It’s the only new piece, ‘I Am Miami’, that makes this collection more than just a series of trunk tales. In this novella we see Albert Black, a retired comprehensive school teacher who took a Arnoldian approach to his charges, come face to face with his worst pupils, Juice Terry and Carl ‘N-Sign’ Ewart, now a DJ and amateur porn director respectively. This takes place in Miami and it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Not only does Welsh make you sympathise with the elderly, brittle Mr Black, he pulls off the coincidences of life that fiction generally doesn’t dare to replicate.
The ending is one of affirmation, and – compared to 1994’s ‘Kissing and Making Up’ – makes you realise how far Welsh has come. His Constant Readers will have enjoyed the ride.
Reheated Cabbage, Irvine Welsh, Cape 2009
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is a co-editor of 3:AM and blogs here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009.