The excesses of youth rarely leave permanent marks because most people never truly indulge. Sure, alcohol is consumed and the occasional drug ingested, but the average Joe always pulls up short of pure, blinding oblivion. Irvine Welsh is not the average Joe. Trainspotting, his at-first unreadable, then totally unputdownable 1993 novel about Scottish smack addicts, showed few boundaries, least of all language-wise. It also allowed Welsh to take advantage of his former addiction to heroin. You have to give it to the Scot: When he does his debauchery, he does it large.
Now 47, Welsh is older and wiser and able to balance his tendency toward sleaze with a more mature tale. The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs is many things — a family saga, a revenge fantasy, a Twilight Zone-esque parable, and, most importantly, a very fun read.
Danny Skinner, a young alcoholic restaurant inspector in Edinburgh who has never met his dad, slowly realizes that the good times may be killing him. He reasons that discovering his father’s identity may help explain why he’s such an insatiable lush. At the same time, he gains a new co-worker, one Brian Kibby, a mincing 21-year-old virgin who loves videogames, model trains, and wimpy Coldplay songs. Skinner immediately takes a dislike to Kibby (which quickly grows into outright hatred) because of the guy’s shyness, ”his mediocrity, his blandness.” One drunken night, Skinner wonders, ”wouldn’t it be fantastic if Kibby could take his hangovers and comedowns for him!” Then, poof, it happens.
It’s a fanciful conceit, simultaneously thrilling and mean. Skinner, for his part, drinks all night, every night, gets into soccer brawls, does LSD, cheap cocaine, and more, escaping with nary a scratch — while Kibby falls ill with what seems to be a mysterious disease that destroys his insides and leaves his outsides puffy, bloated, and covered in bruises. It’s like a modern-day Picture of Dorian Gray (a story that Welsh makes sure to reference), but with affecting subplots about Skinner’s search for his dad (who may or may not be Alan De Fretais, the celebrity chef whose hit book and TV show lend Welsh’s book its title) and Kibby’s relationship with his own.
If this all sounds too high-concept and non-Welshian, don’t fear. There are several set pieces of such extreme grotesqueness (including a gut-turning sex scene between Skinner and an obese, elderly fortune-telling woman) that you’ll consider shutting the book. But you won’t, for Welsh continually rolls out a wonderfully imaginative story full of family and sex and food and booze. You know, all of life’s good stuff.