There are certain things any reader familiar with Irvine Welsh’s work will expect when picking up one of his novels. The seedy underbelly of Edinburgh, profanity, sex, drugs—Welsh has established himself as a leader in the miniature sub-genre where these four things meet. But even this foreknowledge cannot prepare most readers for A Decent Ride, Welsh’s latest foray into his Scottish universe of criminals, addicts and otherwise unsavory characters.
Bit-character Terry “Juice” Lawson is the focal point of A Decent Ride, a title that has many cringe-inducing interpretations given the context. A cab driver in Edinburgh and part-time porn performer (“star” is too aggrandizing a word for the weekend shoots he does with Trainspotting’s Sick Boy), Terry grapples with aging and the loss of his virility as he gets up to the usual blend of criminality and woman-chasing that one would expect from a Welsh novel.
Within the first chapter, Terry meets a pseudo-Donald Trump developer-turned-reality-TV-star who offers him a chauffeuring gig. A few paragraphs later, he’s ruining the funeral of his friend Alan by sharing the story of their last night out, when Alan got so drunk he fell asleep in his own vomit with his head in the freezer. He then inexplicably hooks up with Maggie, an old fling and niece of the deceased. When they are discovered by her daughter, he insinuates sexual interest in her before heading out to trawl for more possible conquests. Again, that’s the first handful of pages.
The book’s heart is in Terry’s eventual struggle with his history and the realities of aging, but any nuggets of wisdom are hidden deep beneath the painful prose and vulgarity of the characters. Terry is brash, seemingly living a grotesque life with no consequences beyond his eventual medical impotency, capable of picking up women despite being a middle-age weirdo with a collection of pick-up lines that could have been lifted straight out of the pornos in which he stars. It’s clear that Terry thinks he’s on the titular decent ride, but viewed from the outside, his life is crushingly sad.
Terry would play as tragic if not for the infuriating prose he lives within. Welsh seems to have phoned it in, relying on underdeveloped characters and a plot that moves so fast it defies all logic rather than actually engaging the reader in a meaningful way. Bouncing between points of view and featuring entire chapters written in the phonetic Scottish dialect Welsh favors, the more experimental storytelling elements aren’t endearing given the subject matter. It just feels like an effort with no real payoff. Is working through Terry’s thick Scottish accent worth it when all he’s going to do is talk about his penis or the penises of others?
None of this is to say that sex and vulgarity have no place in fiction, but Welsh’s overreliance on his favorite calling card strips the novel of any deeper meaning, if there is one at all. Given the sadness one feels immediately for Terry, an insatiable aging man with multiple divorces and dead friends, it would be possible to tell a compelling story about what it means to age beyond the very thing you hung your identity on. The reader can even see Welsh reaching for this sort of meditation. But without fail, it crumbles under the weight of Terry’s libido and sexism. Time and time again, it all boils down to Terry’s penis—which, sadly, isn’t enough to make this almost 500-page book worthwhile.