Novel of the week

Glue

Irvine Welsh <em>Jonathan Cape, 469pp, £12</em>

ISBN 0224061720

Irvine Welsh's new book is prefaced by an epigraph of the type that used to be fashionable, a dictionary definition: "glue: gloo, n. an impure gelatine got by boiling animal refuse, used as an adhesive". Metaphorically, "glue" is what keeps the novel's group of four friends together over 30 years, but this epigraph also seems an inspired diagnosis of Welsh's own narrative strategy. Boil a cauldron of literary refuse long enough and voila, it congeals into a novel. But is it worth sniffing?

The episodic story follows four men from their childhoods in the 1970s to the start of the new millennium. They grow up on the Edinburgh schemes, drinking and shagging, fighting at football matches. Carl Ewart eventually becomes an acid-house DJ; Billy Birrell becomes a boxer; wide boy Terry Lawson remains unemployed; and Andrew Galloway, a junkie who is HIV-positive, seems perfectly doomed, in the overdetermined manner of a low-rent Thomas Hardy character.

The bulk of the novel is in the form of alternating first-person narratives in Scottish dialect. The most entertaining parts resemble out-takes from the dirty comic exuberance of Trainspotting. "Starin at waws is the new niteclubbin," says one scag-loving bloke. "Sais so in The Face." There is a beautifully farcical account of a burglary, in which an inexperienced hand defecates on the kitchen floor on their way in (on the way out is better, so you don't slip on it), and a delightful argument about foreskins in the midst of the Munich beer festival. To heighten the intertextual nostalgia, cameo appearances are made by Trainspotting characters such as Begbie, Sick Boy and Renton.

The trouble is that, like so many once-gifted comedians, Welsh now wants to be taken seriously. Glue is nothing less than a bid for panoramic sociological understanding. So he forces his characters to philosophise, vapidly. Here is Carl's mother: "The world now had a greater superficial wealth than the one they grew up in. Yet something had been lost. It seemed to them a crueller, harsher place, devoid of values." Welsh's characters deserve better than to be puppeted into delivering such empty cliches.

Welsh has also retained his disingenuous trick of using narrators who witness, but are not responsible for, violently gruesome events. Billy Birrell goes on a robbery during which his comrades break the legs of the guard dogs with bolt-cutters and then set them on fire - but it's all right, because Billy tells us slackly: "Ah wisnae intae aw this." The author thus revels in such titillating gore at the same time as winking to the kids not to try this at home. The dog torturers themselves remain blank, cardboard-cut-out thugs. In so far as the novel has a theme - the influences of upbringing and environment on character - it doesn't apply to these fairground villains.

The carefree fizz of our heroes' early adventures is gradually overwhelmed by Welsh's grasping for tragic import. The regrettable flaw of this project is that, in describing emotions, Welsh's only tool is the lingo of bad popular horror novels. "A dazzling fissure opened up in Sandra's mind. Through it, she could almost feel her sanity sliding into an abyss, leaving her a zombiefied shell." I suppose we ought to be grateful for that "almost". By the climax, this sort of thing is slopping odoriferously around the reader's knees.

As the last third of Glue careens into the present day, it becomes comic in all the wrong ways. Welsh shifts into the third person, which gives him the chance, greedily taken, to patronise his own characters. At the last minute, he also shoehorns in some child sexual abuse, as if he had almost forgotten this most essential ingredient of his pungent broth, and the weeping friends come together to rake over their violent past. Terry feels "sad that he couldn't feel more than self-pity and mawkish sentiment". It is a shame that Welsh can't, either. But then, it is a titanium-clad law of literature: inside every posturing hard man lurks a maudlin sentimentalist.