Daniel Reitz reviews 'Filth' by Irvine Welsh.

Published September 4, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Caveat emptor: Irvine Welsh's new novel is called "Filth," and the title does not mislead. After making a name for himself with "Trainspotting," which featured heroin suppositories and filthy toilets, Welsh has, with his latest novel, earned the right to be called our foremost author of excretion.

Feces and other bodily emissions are a collective metaphor for the sick soul of Scotland, inhabited by the underbelly of the chronically grim working class, who shit out their youth, their dreams and their chances of future fulfillment. "Filth" chronicles the mid-level rise and low-level fall of Bruce Robertson, a detective sergeant in the Edinburgh Police Department, a cop who lives to manipulate and who feasts on a daily diet of violence, betrayal, adultery, racism, sexism, homophobia and autoerotic asphyxiation, with an occasional stint of cross-dressing and bestiality thrown into the mix. To Robertson, the world is made for sell-outs, for those who are smart enough to assess whatever side will be the winner of the moment, and he is determined to prove himself master of this universe. "The same rules apply," he mutters to himself over and over -- his rationalization for attempting to steal whatever opportunity comes by, particularly a coveted promotion to inspector.

Scorning the active investigation into a brutal, racially biased murder involving a diplomat's son, he instead takes a trip to Amsterdam for his annual ritual of whoring and snorting as much coke as he can get up his nose. Back home in Edinburgh, he spends his time having callous sex with any willing or half-willing "lassie," when not obsessing over the wife and child who have (understandably) deserted him and scratching his eczema-inflamed genitalia and buttocks until he induces bleeding. He also has a parasite that, while eating away at the gut of its repellent host, is our key to understanding Robertson and his psychosis. This is a tapeworm that talks; it relates the history of Robertson's horrific childhood and its effects, without which we'd be clueless as to what makes him behave as horribly as he does.

My problem with "Filth" is its lopsidedness. More than 300 pages are given over to Robertson's repetitive rant, which is, I admit, often viciously funny. But the insights into his character that explain all of this are dispensed with in less than 50. In a rush, one implausible episode piggybacks on another. It's all so crudely recounted and preposterous -- with tales of mistaken identities and people buried alive or struck by lightning -- that it seems as if Welsh is spontaneously plotting as he's writing. But if you have an appreciation for gallows humor and unrepentant nihilism, as I do, you'll probably find "Filth" a fun read. And the ending, in which the parasite gets the last gasping word, might have made Beckett smile.

By Daniel Reitz

Daniel Reitz, a frequent contributor to Salon, is a writer living in New York. His film "Urbania," based on his play, "Urban Folk Tales," will be released in August.

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