Irvine Welsh, the Scottish author of a long string of drug- and crime-ridden classics such as Trainspotting, sits in the passenger seat of my Dodge Avenger. We're driving through the West Side of Chicago as the sun sets over vacant industrial lots in Cicero, a grimy, working-class suburb just across the street from the city. The fading glow of the sun illuminates Irvine's closely shaved head. His blurb for my book, The Old Neighborhood, is emblazoned on the slick car wrap that has temporarily superceded my Avenger's white paint job. "This cool, incendiary rites of passage novel is the real deal," it reads.
Sparse foliage sprouts up from the busted blacktop as 100-year-old factories loom on the burnt orange horizon.
"This's my favorite sunset around here," I tell Irvine.
"Aye, a Cicero decay sunset," he replies.
Cicero Stadium stands bigand wide as a diverse crowd bustles in the main entrance. Tonight it's host to the Chicago Golden Gloves Finals. Boxing is how Irvine and I met, more than a decade ago. I was a top local Golden Gloves boxer at the time, and Irvine boxed in his youth and remains deeply connected to the sport in his native Scotland. (Tall and rangy, his long arms would have given any pressure fighter trouble.) We still go to the fights together whenever he's in Chicago. In fact, the two of us are currently trying to help match up a Chicago prospect with an Edinburgh boxer for a televised WBC International Cruiserweight Title fight—a pugilistic means of merging our two worlds together.
And so, the Golden Gloves Finals seemes like a natural place to interview Irvine about the film adaptation of his novel Filth, which opens here in the United States on Friday and stars James McAvoy as Bruce Robertson, a Scottish detective whose psychological break propels him into a nightmarish world of drugs, sexual perversity and corruption. Admittedly, however, our attention never strays far from the action in the ring.
PLAYBOY: You spent a lot of time dodging cops and breaking laws as a kid, so it's funny that a police officer is your main character in Filth. How'd you make that choice?
WELSH: The novel was about the abuse of power and how we can cling to petty forms of control and bullying as a futile form of self-assertion when our lives are going to shit. It seemed easier to set this in a closed organization like the police force where you have de facto potential to abuse power. I'd also written a lot about fucked-up outlaws so it seemed interesting to look at the psychology of a fucked-up law enforcer.
PLAYBOY: Have you had any interaction with American cops? Do they remind you of the cops back home?
WELSH: Generally speaking, I think cops everywhere have a difficult job to do. When you're a cop, you become part of a brotherhood, and you tend to be isolated from everyone who isn't a cop. It probably has to be like that. Otherwise, you get compromised by everything that happens outside of the group. But inside such a closed organization, you're liable to corruption. When you have someone who's an absolute nutcase like Bruce Robertson, it's like he's hiding in plain sight because the force protects him. Until he gets too crazy for even the guys on the force, and they have to blow the whistle on him.
PLAYBOY: What draws you to disturbed characters like Bruce Robertson that lose touch with reality and become insane?
WELSH: Everyone has been under pressure, done something crazy and thought, "I've got to pull myself together." But in fiction it's liberating and energizing to see somebody going absolutely fucking nuts because our whole life is about being surrounded by boundaries. When you see people punching holes in the walls of society, it can be uplifting.
PLAYBOY: Is a character flirting with suicide a liberating thing, as Robertson does in Filth?
WELSH: Bruce Robertson isn't just a danger to himself—he's a danger to other people, too. There's this air of threat that constantly hangs around him, and when you're with people like that in real life, it's distressing because you never know what they're going to do. There's a real sense of concern and a heightened anxiety that surrounds a dangerous madman.
The Golden Gloves announcer mentions the name "Lambert," jolting me out of interview mode. "You're in for a treat," I tell Irvine. "This girl is something special."
One-hundred-and-twelve-pound Maureeca Lambert is one of those boxers with a split personality—friendly outside of the ring but ferocious inside of it. She gets to work swiftly and takes control early. As she pins her next victim against the ropes, Irvine and the rest of the crowd rises to their feet. Lambert's gloves wheel into a crackling blur as her opponent recoils like she's receiving machine-gun fire. The referee mercifully steps in and stops the bout as a TKO.
"That lassie really turned a switch!" Irvine exclaims. "She's an assassin."
Eventually, the hysteria surrounding Lambert's TKO finally calms down enough for Irvine and I to have a real conversation again.
PLAYBOY: One of my favorite things about Filth is your use of the talking tapeworms that are growing inside of Robertson's intestines. Where did you get the idea for them?
WELSH: I read about tapeworms and liked the idea of a 40-foot living being growing in a human intestine. It's freaky. I also thought about the persistent notion of duality as expressed in Scottish writing—from Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde to James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner—and realized the tapeworms could work as a literary device, too.
PLAYBOY: James McAvoy is best known here in the States for his roles in X-Men and Chronicles of Narnia. Going in, did you think he had the depth to pull off the diabolical, drug-addled pervert that is Bruce Robertson?
WELSH: It's one of the greatest solo acting performances I've ever seen, and it still surprises me. First, he's almost physically unrecognizable. He roughed himself up so that he went from being a fresh-faced 30-year-old who looks 20 to a 40-year-old divorced, alcoholic Scottish cop. Second, I've never seen any actor portray a mental breakdown like that on screen. The emotional transitions he makes are astonishing. When [the film's director] Jon Baird and I first met James, we couldn't believe how he was able to turn into this character before our eyes. When he left, we high-fived each other. We knew we'd just seen something special and couldn't wait to share it with the world.
One of my old stablemates, "Fearless" Fernando Hernandez appears ringside with his boxer, Yousif Saleh, a baby-faced Yemeni-American kid fighting in the Gloves for the first time. At age 17, just making it to the finals was a major accomplishment. Now Saleh is set to face the reigning Golden Gloves Champion Christian Williams.
The opening round is quiet. Several of Williams supporters ohhh and ahhh in the rows behind Irvine and I every time Williams throws a counter-punch—whether it lands or not. Saleh, for his part, looks a little lost and uncertain.
About 30 seconds into the second round, however, Saleh rips a left-hook, right-cross combination at distance. The shot cracks Williams head out of his guard. Williams freezes and looks at Saleh confused and astonished. Now, Saleh energetically stalks Williams, peppering him with blows that force the referee to administer a standing eight count on the champ.
When the ref waves them on to continue, Saleh rushes in and unleashes more punishment. Irvine jumps up beside me, shouting and clapping for Saleh.
Williams is saved by the bell as he slumps on the ropes in a daze. Irvine and I high-five as the crowd roars.
"What a comeback!" I shout.
"Aye, the kid picked it up," Irvine adds. "Attaboy, Yousif!"
The third round of the fight is closer, but the judge's decision awards Saleh a decision victory, propelling him into the National Golden Gloves competition.
"Pretty good fight, eh?" I ask Irvine.
"Yeah, I can't believe Yousif pulled it off—that was a cracker," Irvine responds before turning back to my questions.
PLAYBOY: You've been getting more involved with writing scripts for films and TV. What's the difference between writing for Hollywood and writing books?
WELSH: Books are an intensely personal thing whereas films are a social thing. For instance, making a movie is like being here at the Golden Gloves—everybody's experiencing the same thing. You're reacting differently, but you're sharing it so you get that instant social experience. With a book, you can sit on the Underground in London and you might see three or four people reading the same book, but you don't know what they're thinking or how they're feeling.
PLAYBOY: Where you involved in the screenplay for Filth?
WELSH: I consulted with Jon Baird on it, and he sent me the drafts of it. I've written loads of screenplays of other people's books, but I don't like writing the screenplay of my own book because it always benefits from a fresh pair of eyes. You get a bit too precious with your own book, and you want to keep everything psychologically. Plus, you have to be ruthless with a book to make it work as a screenplay, and as a novelist, it's harder to be ruthless with a book you've written.
PLAYBOY: What made you trust Baird?
WELSH: I've got a friend called Cass Pennant who was a top West Ham football hooligan. He's a black guy who was brought up by a white family in East London. He wrote a book about his life called Cass. Jon was an Aberdeen hooliganand ended up directing the film version of Cass. Cass told me that Jon was a big fan of Filth, and he really wanted to do the film. Cass said, "You gotta meet him" and introduced us. Jon invited me as his special guest to the premiere of Cass, and I had a book launch that I invited him to. Later on, we hired this boat to take us around the Thames. We were on the boat drinking and chatting, and eventually, we decided to do it.
PLAYBOY: So basically the creation of the film Filth came down to three soccer hooligans buddying up?
WELSH: It came out of football connections. Everything in Britain that's working class does. If you're working class in Britain, you either know people through football or music, and everything kind of evolves out of that.
Super heavyweight Nick Mazurek, a tall Polish kid with a long face and big shoulders, goes on last. Mazurek is the star pupil of legendary Chicago trainer Sam Colonna. I used to be one of Sam's fighters back when he was head trainer at the iconic Windy City Gym. Sam helped me get selected for the Golden Gloves International traveling team a couple times, and I'd seen a good chunk of the world because of him. I'd taken a liking to Mazurak because he was fearless, ambitious and skilled. Sam was high on him as well.
From almost the start of the fight, Mazurak bounces his opponent all over the ring with precision combinations. "Your boy's putting on a show," Irvine observes.
"Yeah, I knew he'd win this," I reply.
After the fight is over, we wait to congratulate Mazurak on his victory. Beads of sweat trickle from his brow onto his many supporters. Somebody brings over his championship belts—two for the Golden Gloves and one for the State Tournament. A big, cheesy grin spreads across his sweaty mug as he puts them on.
"I think Nick's got a chance of making it," I tell Irvine as we climb into my Dodge Avenger and head back into the city.
"Yeah, that kid can box. He puts his punches together, and he's got a great deal of power on them as well."
I won't see Irvine again until this summer, when we'll be doing some events together and the tour for my book will be in full swing. It's another type of madness Irvine knows full well. From the passenger seat, he riffs on the lines that stretched out of sight during his Trainspotting book tour. Which prompts one final question: What advice does he have for me—another boxer-turned-novelist about to send his first book out into the world?
His answer comes quick. "Roll with the punches, and when you get the chance, knock them clean out."
Photo by Todd Diederich