Reheated Scotch broth

<strong>The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs</strong>

Irvine Welsh <em>Jonathan Cape, 400pp, £1

Danny Skinner is an aggressive alpha male on a quest to discover who (of three possible can didates) fathered him one drunken evening in 1980. Unsurprisingly, the putative father is something of a red herring, and Skinner is actually looking for himself. His job is significantly complicated by the involvement of his distinctly omega-male alter ego, Brian Kibby. In a drunken moment Skinner somehow puts a curse on Kibby, with the result that Kibby suffers the physical consequences of Skinner's behaviour. In this heavily metaphor-laden phantasmagoria, Skinner deviates from his search by descending into easy sex and severe alcoholism. The consequences for the virginal teetotaller Kibby are a sore arse and a liver transplant.

Despite the puff, Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs does not say much that is new about food or celebrity. Its strength is in investigating the transformative powers of alcohol: its degenerative physical and mental effects, particularly its ability to incite the base, sometimes murderous instinct in men. But if alcohol is responsible for the personality shifts of the main characters, the explanations of why they are alcoholics can come across as a search for what to blame. Is booze itself the curse? Or is it the burden of having to be a man? Or is it living in Scotland and being Scottish that drives a man to self-obliteration?

This is where the whole idea gets a bit confused, with too many metaphors being thrown into the pot. A tortuous parallel with Scotland's woes is woven in: just as Kibby suffers the fallout from the destructive actions of the smooth-talking, superficially well-meaning Skinner, so Scotland allows itself to be metaphorically buggered by England's parliament. As if this were not enough, the theme is widened yet further to include the suffering of faraway people thanks to the egocentric behaviour of Bush and Blair.

In case playing with big themes appears a little too intellectual, plenty of crowd-pleasing Welshisms are thrown in to compensate. The Oor Wullie Scottish vernacular drops in intermittently, with lots of "fucks" and "cunts". Hard drinking, fitba violence, heterosexual men having gay sex, a younger generation spazzed on illegal narcotics, an older generation prescription-drugged to the moon against the familiar terrain of lovely Leith: the gang's all here. And sometimes it feels like reheated Scotch broth. Welsh plays to the gallery with a gut-wrenching epi sode of gerontophilia that is somehow supposed to redeem Skinner. Like so much in this book, though, the question is how, or even why?

As well as lacking coherence, the ubiquitous analogies are spoiled by being double, then triple, underlined. Characters reappearing to explain some twist have their significance wilfully reiterated. Just before Kibby allows himself to be sodomised, he is offered a choice of oysters or snails. Assuming an inattentive or immature reader, Welsh feels it necessary to signpost all the machinations of the plot, which is sprinkled with unlikely coincidences, and the book verges on Scottish whimsy.

There might be a tighter novel somewhere inside here, but it gets lost in blather. Endless minor characters are given their full names, which might be an inside joke, but seems pointless. Pages are wasted with shaky metaphors and self-conscious prose that is often plodding. At times, the literary description of banal happenings gives it the wistful tone of an A-level creative writing essay. The need to establish Kibby as a boring softie involves long internal monologues on computer games, Star Trek, hiking, lovely lassies and, inevitably, wanking. To fill out as a character, the thoroughly dislikeable Skinner has to deal with themes at the other end of the masculinity spectrum, such as sizing up his alcohol intake or enumerating his hip-hop collection. By the time the scene has been set in such exhaustive detail, the McGuffins in this horror thriller have stacked up so thick that the end of the book (excitingly paced though it is) has nothing to do but tie up one loose end after the other.

By trying to make a point about masculinity with a familiar cast of cartoonish characters, the book suffers its own identity crisis. It can't quite decide if it is a novel or an erudite farce narrated by a pub storyteller. It attempts to veil this in decision by adopting an overarching irony to protect itself against charges of seriousness. Just as the male characters refuse to come to grips with themselves, bogging themselves down in drinking and fucking (literally and metaphorically) other people, the book also refuses to come to any conclusions about what it is trying to say. To quote Skinner (on making others take responsibility for your actions), "You can get away with it if you have the power and you're fucked if you don't. But it's all shite. Who needs it?" As an analogy for what it means to be a man, such fatalistic escapism is depressing and self-piteous. But presumably that is what people are looking for in an Irvine Welsh novel.