Did You Hear? BlackBook’s Audio Book Review of Irvine Welsh’s Skagboys

Presented by Audible

Listen in on your own: buy Skagboys  or get a free download here.

Instead of spending hours of my week unnecessarily fiddling with Twitter and Facebook feeds and/or watching TV and/or falling into the black hole of YouTube and/or complaining I have very little time to read, I spent those hours listening to Skagboys by Irvine Welsh, expertly narrated by the Scottish actor Tam Dean Burn. No doubt, listening to this gargantuan novel (24+ hours of audiobook) is a commitment, so I listened to it while going about activities that don’t require a lot of mental energy but rather physical energy: working out, commuting, walking miles through a concrete jungle, grooming, and eating. It was perfect, because Skagboys demands your attention, and once the story grabs you, you’re tossed into a world both harrowing and comical, populated by characters both repugnant and charming.

These characters are familiar to anyone who has read Trainspotting and Porno: Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, Allison, and my personal favorite from the Welsh canon, Franco Begbie. We’re given a thorough account of their early lives in lowland Scotland. It’s all here: family dynamics, motivations, the effects of politics and socio-economic conditions, and the story about how these characters encounter and succumb to skag, Welsh’s “favourite word for heroin.” It truly is an epic novel, not just in length, but also in character development, setting, theme, and most notably language. Much of it is written phonetically in raw Scottish dialect.

The most daunting part of reading Welsh, for me—and this is not an indictment but a welcomed challenge—is wrestling with this unvarnished and phonetic Scottish vernacular, particularly in the dialogue of his characters. Admittedly, I struggled a bit when I read Trainspotting and Porno a few years ago (though I really enjoyed the challenge of deciphering just what the hell was written!). But it’s equally rewarding, and maybe even more so, hearing Welsh’s prose and his characters’ dialogue blister and pop. This is where a talented narrator comes in and Tam Dean Burn nails it. To illustrate my point, here are two choice passages from the physical book: “So she’s wipin spunk offay her face, gaun aw fuckin panicky, ‘Whae wis that, wis that ma dad?’” and “Wir gaun doon thaire tae huv a wee fuckin blether wi this Hong Kong Fuey cunt! Ah feel masel swallyin hard wi nowt in ma throat.” One can’t simply skim-read these sentences. They demand a read, rinse, repeat. But listening to it?  These words simply flow and the effect is terrifically different.

Sure, some may call it a cheat, but I disagree. Here is where audiobooks are a gift to a reader who enjoys being forced out of his or her comfort zone and challenged by unfamiliar language, a reader who celebrates picking up phrases and terms known to other parts of the world but unknown to him- or herself. Here is where that somewhat intimidating but interesting book you picked up once when you were feeling ambitious stops being a guilt-inducing tome, collecting dust and coffee mug stains on your bedside table, and becomes, instead, what it truly is: an adventure that stimulates and illuminates all the dull corners of your day.

Listen in on your own: buy Skagboys  or get a free download here.

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