August 18, 2006
“Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs” by Irvine Welsh
Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times
Drunks have long been a comedy staple, and Irvine Welsh, the Scottish author of “Trainspotting,” spices up their drunkenness with drugs for an extra comic kick. With his eighth book, “The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs” (Norton, 391 pp., $24.95), he sticks to his tried-and-true territory of drink, drugs, sex and general vulgarity.
Danny Skinner, a restaurant inspector in Edinburgh, Scotland, is a heavy-drinking, drug-abusing skirt-chaser — about what you would expect from an Irvine Welsh hero. Skinner’s mother is a former punk rocker who loved the Clash — as did we all — and slept with three men the night of a Clash show in 1980. One of the men spawned Skinner. She jokingly tells Skinner his father was guitarist Joe Strummer, and he is beaten up at school for claiming his dad was in the Clash.
At 23, Skinner decides to search for his unknown father, thinking this might move his stalled life forward. “He desperately wanted to know about his own father before … becoming one himself.” Potential candidates include Alan De Fretais, a celebrated chef and author of “The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs,” an “aphrodisiac cookbook.”
A Master Chef, De Fretais writes, is “more than just a chemist: he is an alchemist, a sorcerer, an artist, as his concoctions are not designed to remedy maladies of body or mind, but attend to the far more wondrous task of uplifting the soul.”
Skinner’s soul is definitely in need of heavy lifting, weighed down as it is by various compulsions he’s unable to control or even understand, including an acute hatred of a tee-totaling co-worker, Brian Kirby.
“I can’t explain this rage against him,” Skinner admits to himself, “the impulse to precipitate and savour his annihilation, and part of me is horribly ashamed of it: the pathetic nature of it all, the raw, searing illicit pleasure this hatred of him gives me.”
Skinner’s super-intense loathing transports this novel from naturalistic moorings into the realm of magic realism. Skinner unwittingly casts a curse on Kirby, which causes Kirby to suffer the consequences of Skinner’s hard living. When Skinner drinks too much, Kirby suffers the hangover. When Skinner brawls, Kirby suffers the bruises. The two of them become mysteriously and inextricably linked.
However, this does not play out like John Donne’s famous meditation, “No man is an island,” but rather more like the Clash’s fatalistic rant, “London calling to the faraway towns, now war is declared and battle come down.”
The narrative frequently switches back and forth from third person to first person, and sometimes into a Scottish patois that can be difficult to decipher in the early going, but it’s compelling nonetheless. All the characters in this book, even the minor ones, are drawn with scary accuracy in Welsh’s unique voice.
Welsh stumbles only when he strains to tie together Kirby’s victimization and geopolitics, blaming the powerful for everything. The political lectures are as hackneyed and simplistic as the character portraits are original and complex. Besides, the proselytizing undermines the power of the story. As Joe Strummer said, “When you blame yourself, you learn from it. If you blame someone else, you don’t learn nothing.”