A life of grime
Reading ‘Filth’ as an Irvine Welsh virgin is like being taken roughly from behind in a piss-sodden alleyway. It begins with a hammer-blow to the cranium, and that’s what it feels like to read. Rolling around like a pig in shit, the narrative gleefully tells the tale of Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, an Edinburgh “polisman” who’s as “Jackie Trent” as they come.
Everywhere you look in the world of crime fiction there are nasty hard-bitten cops who struggle to stay the right side of the law themselves, but Robertson is a whole different kettle of fish, a copper who has no qualms about snorting coke whilst on duty, shagging his sister-in-law and forcing a fifteen-year-old girl into fellating him to avoid arrest. Ian Rankin might have drawn upon the darker and seamier side of the Scottish capital for literary profit, but Welsh elbows him aside and really plumbs the depths in an appropriately brutal idiom that seems to roar from the page.
Not even John Self, the hero of another literary touchstone, Martin Amis’s ‘Money’, can come close to Robertson for the sheer grotesquery of his appetite for drink, drugs and “Roger Moores”. The stomach-churning detail is all the more appalling for the fact that the book is frequently very funny, not least the malicious and spiteful games he plays on “friends” and colleagues and the scene in which the filming of a bestiality video goes wrong: “The animal ignores her completely, springing at me and attaching itself to my leg, thrusting ferociously. ‘Get that fuckin thing off me’, I shout, trying to push it away, but the bastard’s nostrils flare and a low growl comes from its throat. I stagger backwards, knocking over the tripod and camera. Hector grabs the dug and pulls him off me, by which time my C&A’s troosers are covered in canine spunk.” Not so much laughter in the dark, then, as laughter in the pitch black.
And yet, three-quarters of the way through, it all seemed just a bit pointless, little more than an exercise in triumphantly trumping anything that’s gone before, the sordid detail beginning to become wearisome. Moreover, the story follows the same characteristic narrative trajectory as other classic tales of hubris, from ‘Macbeth’ to ‘Money’.
But then, over the last quarter, the novel’s various twists turn it into a rather different kind of beast, unexpectedly touching. Even if it’s expected, the fall from grace, when it comes, is devastating. As Robertson becomes increasingly incoherent, the burden of narrating (famously) falls to the tapeworm which has taken residence in his gut and which has previously intruded into the story only to demand food. The final few pages are a genuine tour de force that left me feeling, appropriately enough, brutalised. Not for the faint of heart, in any sense.