The Skag Boys, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Mother Superior. In Leith (the Edinburgh, Scotland neighborhood where most of the book takes place), Sick Boy is shaking and sweating while the narrator (Rent Boy) tries to watch a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Sick Boy interrupts the movie to say he has to go see Mother Superior (Johnny Swan). Rent Boy wants to keep watching the movie, but Sick Boy complains that he’s suffering. At last, Rent Boy agrees to go.
The novel begins with some of the main characters watching videos, suggesting how important pop culture is in the novel while also establishing Rent Boy as an observer (he will be the narrator for much of the novel). Even more important to the characters than the videos, however, is heroin, and this scene depicts the severe negative effects of withdrawal. The characters’ nickname for their dealer, “Mother Superior,” shows how heroin has become so much like a religion to them that even they themselves jokingly acknowledge it. Jean-Claude Van Damme is a famous martial artist who starred in action movies.
It’s a cold day for August, and Rent Boy and Sick Boy have trouble hailing a taxi. There’s a group of men in tracksuits and bomber jackets that has been waiting even longer, but when a taxi shows up, Sick Boy tries to jump ahead of them. The men start arguing with Sick Boy, but he and Rent Boy take the taxi anyway. The taxi driver isn’t amused, and Rent Boy is also angry that now he’ll have to watch out for the men in tracksuits. But all Sick Boy cares about is making it to Mother Superior.
This brief episode establishes that while Rent Boy and Sick Boy both depend on heroin, Sick Boy is the more reckless of the two. His lack of concern about upsetting the men in tracksuits suggests that he only thinks in the short term and isn’t worried about how his actions might come back to haunt him later.
Mother Superior is the nickname of Johnny Swan, a drug dealer who used to be good friends with Rent Boy but who became more businesslike after he started dealing. Johnny isn’t a big-time dealer, so he still uses as well. As Rent Boy and Sick Boy climb the stairs at Mother Superior’s home, Rent Boy also starts to sweat. When they make it to the top, Johnny is already high. Raymie and Alison are also there.
This passage depicts how Rent Boy and Sick Boy don’t use heroin in isolation but as part of a community. The boundaries between relationships get blurry as friendship, drug use, and business all come together.
Rent Boy asks Raymie to put on some music, so Raymie puts on a live version of “Heroin” by Lou Reed. Sick Boy helps Alison take a speedball of heroin (“skag”) and cocaine. Johnny offers Sick Boy a shot—but only if he uses Johnny’s equipment. But Sick Boy only uses his own needles for hygiene reasons. Johnny acts offended, but he says he was only joking earlier. They both know people who have AIDS. At last, Sick Boy shoots up and starts to feel relaxed again.
Lou Reed is a real musician who famously sang about addiction in the 1960s and 1970s. At times, musicians like Reed arguably blur the line between being a cautionary tale against drug use and glamorizing addiction. The characters in Trainspotting have a similarly conflicted relationship with heroin, seeking out the high even as they recognize its real dangers, which include HIV infection.
Alison mentions her friend Kelly, who had an abortion recently and is depressed, and says that someone should go visit her at some point. She suggests Rent Boy (whose real name is Mark Rents, although Alison is one of the few people who calls him Mark). Rent Boy asks why he has to see Kelly, and Alison explains that everyone knows Kelly likes Rent Boy, which surprises him. Sick Boy says Rent Boy knows nothing about women, which annoys Rent Boy.
Although the characters are mainly in their 20s, several of them have “Boy” in their nicknames (including Rent Boy, Sick Boy, and their collective title: The Skag Boys). “Boy” can suggest youthful exuberance, but it also suggests that the characters are naïve and powerless, in part because of their addictions.
The group sits and talks for a while, and then Alison and Sick Boy get up, seemingly to go have sex. Raymie, meanwhile, is off in his own little world, drawing on the wall in crayon. Rent Boy thinks about seeing Kelly. He thinks he might be too squeamish to have sex with her if he thinks about the details of her recent abortion, and so he admits he might not know much about women after all. Rent Boy also feels too high to see Kelly, so when he leaves, he goes back to watching the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie instead.
The novel largely follows a male point of view, and here Rent Boy shows how he doesn’t understand women and how that lack of understanding makes him uncomfortable. Instead, he retreats to the comfort of the hypermasculine Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, which he can watch from a safe distance.
Junk Dilemmas No. 63. The narrator (Rent Boy), in the middle of a high, describes being afraid of the wallpaper in the room they’re currently in. The wallpaper looks like it was put up by an elderly person. He starts cooking up another shot.
There are several short sections of the book titled “Junk Dilemmas” and rather than tell a story, they generally focus more on setting a scene and conveying a mood, placing readers inside the mind of a person experiencing heroin addiction.
The First Day of the Edinburgh Festival. On his third try, Rent Boy feels that he has successfully kicked his addiction, having taken his last shot that morning. He rents a big bare room and heads up with some supplies, including food, magazines, and some Valium he stole from his Ma.
The beginning of this section is humorous because Rent Boy feels like he’s kicked his addiction, when in fact, he just took heroin that morning and plans to replace heroin with Valium (a potentially addictive prescription drug).
As Rent Boy settles into his bare room, he begins to feel the familiar symptoms of withdrawal, which start like a panic attack and then spread through his whole body. Eventually, the pain gets so bad that Rent Boy wants a little bit of heroin to stop himself from crashing too hard. He calls Raymie, but Raymie is away, and one of his roommates answers. This means if Rent Boy wants heroin, he’ll have to interact with Mike Forrester, who lives all the way out in Muirhouse and has low-quality product. Rent Boy takes a bus to Muirhouse.
This passage depicts the severe negative effects of heroin withdrawal, which help to explain why kicking an addiction is so difficult in the first place. Rent Boy’s contradictory thinking—that in order to quit heroin, he needs a little bit more heroin—illustrates the cycle of addiction.
On the bus, someone is listening to “Golden Years” by David Bowie with the volume so high that Rent Boy can hear it. At last, the bus makes it to Forrester’s apartment. Forrester takes a while to answer the door and doesn’t seem particularly happy to see Rent Boy. A woman with a broken leg in a cast and greasy dyed-blond hair sits on the couch. In a chair next to Forrester is a man with sinister-looking eyes. Forrester doesn’t introduce these people to Rent Boy.
Several of the musicians that the book mentions, including David Bowie, famously experienced periods of addiction. During Rent Boy’s earlier visit to Johnny Swan, the atmosphere was social, but when he’s surrounded by strangers, Rent Boy sees how he himself might look to a stranger, and the atmosphere seems more menacing.
Forrester doesn’t seem to notice Rent Boy’s urgency—he’s feeling really sick now—so he interrupts to ask Forrester if he’s ready to sell. Forrester gets irrationally angry. Rent Boy figures Forrester wants to create the impression that he’s a real tough guy. Also, Rent Boy once had sex with a woman Forrester liked. At last, Forrester is ready to sell, so Rent Boy gets out some money. Forrester pulls out two white capsules that he claims are opium suppositories.
This passage explores the social dynamic during a drug deal. Rent Boy’s strong dependence on heroin gives Forrester an unusual amount of power over him, and he exploits this power in petty ways. When he does finally hand over the suppositories, however, Forrester immediately loses his power over Rent Boy, which is why he’s so reluctant to give him the capsules.
Rent Boy doesn’t want to accept the suppositories at first, but Forrester says they’re exactly what Rent Boy needs. Eventually, Rent Boy gives in and goes to the toilet to insert his suppository. When he gets back, Forrester tells him the suppository might take a while to take effect. Forrester seems disappointed to have lost his power over Rent Boy, and Rent Boy soon decides to leave.
Because Rent Boy and Forrester aren’t on good terms, Forrester offers Rent Boy the suppositories, which seem to be one of his less desirable products. The fact that Rent Boy accepts them suggests how desperate he is.
As Rent Boy goes down the stairs of the apartment, he feels a little better, although he figures it’s probably still the placebo effect. All of a sudden, his guts feel loose, and he remembers he hasn’t emptied his bowels in almost a week. He starts defecating wet diarrhea in his pants, then he clenches his sphincter as soon as he realizes what’s happening. He doesn’t want to go back to Forrester, so he heads over to a local shopping center with a toilet.
Bodily fluids and gross imagery play a huge part in the book. Partly, the grossness contributes to the realism of the story, but it also helps to highlight the absurdity of being addicted to heroin and how people looking for a fix will put up with things that other people might find unbearable.
Rent Boy enters a shop and heads to the restroom, but a man inside stops him from using the toilet because it’s blocked. He thinks Rent Boy wants to shoot up heroin in the stall. Rent Boy gets angry, and at last the man lets him pass. Rent Boy sits on the toilet and empties his bowels, killing a fly in his hand and using it to write on the stall wall.
One of the main paradoxes of Rent Boy’s character is that he’s a vegetarian—but has no trouble killing animals himself, like the fly he smashes on the wall. This suggests that Rent Boy is hypocritical in some ways and possibly even an unreliable narrator, as well.
When Rent Boy is done on the toilet, he goes searching in the bowl for his suppositories and finds them. Outside the stall, people get impatient. Rent Boy considers just swallowing the suppositories to save himself the trouble, but then he figures that now that his bowels are empty, he can just try the suppositories again the normal way. He goes back to his new apartment to clean up.
When Rent Boy considers eating the suppositories that just came out of his own rectum with diarrhea, even he sees the absurdity of the situation. He recognizes that he has problems in his life but doesn’t yet feel enough urgency to change anything.
In Overdrive. A different narrator (Sick Boy) says he’s tired of Rent Boy talking so much to him. Rent Boy wants to go back to his place and watch videos, but Sick Boy wants to stay on the bridge where they are and watch women in leggings.
While Rent Boy narrates many stories in the book, the novel combines the perspectives of several different characters. Although it’s possible to read some of the sections in isolation like short stories, they have connections to one another that tie them together as a novel. Here, for example, Sick Boy references videos like the ones he and Rent Boy were watching at the very beginning of the book.
Some English women of East Asian descent come by and seem to be tourists, so Sick Boy offers them directions, trying to do a suave Sean Connery voice. But they’re going to see a production of a play by Bertolt Brecht and are more impressed that Rent Boy knows his other plays. The women agree to meet them later for drinks, but Sick Boy is annoyed at Rent Boy. In fact, Sick Boy is tired of all his friends, feeling like they’re holding him back. In his head, he goes off on a racist and homophobic rant about how it’s him against the world.
All of the characters in the novel are flawed to some extent, but Sick Boy is perhaps one of the most conflicted characters in the story. His struggles with addiction and with others not accepting him can be sympathetic, but he frequently looks down on the people around him, whether they’re total strangers or his closest friends.
Growing Up In Public. Nina feels that her mother resents her but isn’t sure why. Her mother hints that she should go make tea for Auntie Alice, and as last Nina takes the hint and goes to make it. Nina’s Uncle Andy has just died, and although she liked him when she was younger, she finds grief very “uncool.” She doesn’t need to change her clothes for mourning because she always wears black anyway.
Some segments of the novel are only tangentially related to the main characters. These sections help build a sense of place and community, suggesting that the main characters are part of a larger world and not always at the very center of it.
The kettle goes off, and Nina brings the tea to Auntie Alice. Her relatives talk about death and about how at least Uncle Andy died quickly from heart trouble. The doorbell rings, and it’s the family doctor. He tries to act dignified, and all Nina’s aunts and uncles fawn over him. Just then, Nina realizes her period is starting. She rushes to the bathroom.
Death haunts the main characters due to their addictions and the risks that accompany them, like overdosing or contracting HIV. This story shows how death can come suddenly even for people who don’t use heroin. Nina’s difficulty to accept mortality shows her similarities to the main characters.
On the toilet, Nina inspects her bleeding and notices that it hasn’t quite made it through to her leggings. She can’t find any tampons or pads because Auntie Alice is post-menopausal, so she improvises with toilet paper.
Rent Boy had his own bathroom emergency in an earlier story. These sections emphasize how sometimes it’s impossible to control the human body.
Nina gets ready to go back to the crowd, mostly just waiting for a chance to ask her mother for money. She needs the money to go see a band with her friends in Edinburgh. As she leaves the bathroom, she passes Uncle Andy’s corpse, which is still in bed under the covers, his mouth hanging wide open as if he’s in a drunken argument. She decides to stop and steal some clean underwear from Auntie Alice, then goes back to the bathroom to change.
Uncle Andy’s corpse forces Nina to directly confront the issue of death, despite her efforts to avoid it earlier. Perhaps Nina’s theft of her aunt’s underwear is her way of proving to herself that she isn’t afraid of death (since the corpse is in the same room as the underwear drawer).
When Nina gets back to the group, her relatives are drinking alcohol instead of tea. She feels some of her relatives must be relieved that Uncle Andy died of his third heart attack, since now they won’t have to be nervous whenever they hear the phone ring. Nina doesn’t like her cousins, including Mark (Rent Boy), who is supposedly into drugs.
Like Rent Boy (who turns out to be her cousin), Nina is cynical and sees the dark side of the people around her and how their seeming grief may also be mixed with other feelings, including even relief.
Nina’s cousin Geoff comes over to talk to her. He says it’s a shame about Uncle Andy, and they talk for a little while about school. He’s a recent English literature graduate who is currently receiving unemployment. Suddenly, Nina realizes Geoff is a little drunk and that he’s flirting with her. He offers to take her out to a pub. Nina hesitates but ultimately says yes because she wants an excuse to leave her aunt’s house.
Nina doesn’t seem to like Geoff that much, but she feels trapped at the funeral, and Geoff is her best chance out. Geoff is one of many characters in the book drawing unemployment benefits, which shows the extent of the difficult economic conditions in Scotland at the time.
As Nina gets ready to leave, she remembers she left her gloves in Uncle Andy’s room, so she goes back to get them. While she’s in the room, she swears she sees Uncle Andy twitch. She feels his hand and it’s still warm. She calls everyone up to check whether Uncle Andy is actually alive. One of her other uncles feels Andy’s sweaty forehead and starts shouting that he’s not actually dead.
While Nina tried to prove she wasn’t afraid of Uncle Andy’s corpse earlier, this time, she can’t resist it. At first, the story leaves it deliberately ambiguous whether Nina really sees her Uncle Andy move or whether her anxiety is simply affecting her perception.
The doctor comes up, however, and confirms that Uncle Andy has no heartbeat. It turns out someone just left the electric blanket on by accident. Geoff gets angry at the uncle who shouted Andy was alive, for all that he put Auntie Alice through. Meanwhile, Nina laughs until she starts crying as she remembers what it was like to be young and happy in her aunt and uncle’s house.
This section shows that Nina was letting her imagination get the better of her, revealing that perhaps beneath her tough attitude, she has still experienced a lot of grief or at least confusion at her uncle’s death.
Victory on New Year’s Day. On New Year’s Eve, Begbie greets Stevie with a hug. But Stevie is preoccupied about how Stella back in London hasn’t called him yet. Franco tells Stevie to loosen up, which isn’t difficult because everyone at the New Year’s Eve party is high.
New Year’s Eve suggests both beginnings and endings, and so it’s appropriate that Stevie seems to be on the verge of starting (or failing to start) a new relationship.
Stevie sees Rent Boy and Sick Boy at the party, and Sick Boy complains about how everything in the world has gotten too safe lately, from sex to soccer. Rent Boy agrees with him, which is unusual. But it doesn’t take long before the two are arguing again.
Most of the characters speak in some form of a Scottish dialect, so soccer is “fitba” (“football”) to them. The emphasis on how the characters speak relates back to the novel’s focus on Scottish identity.
Rent Boy reminds Stevie that he’ll be staying with him for a while in February. Stevie hoped Rent Boy had forgotten about this. He likes Rent Boy, but Rent Boy is too into drugs for Stevie’s taste. New Year’s Eve parties begin to feel like work to Stevie.
Like Nina, Stevie finds Rent Boy’s heroin use somewhat disturbing, showing how Rent Boy’s lifestyle can isolate him from other people around him, even friends.
Stevie thinks about his last conversation with Stella—he confessed his feelings to her at a pub, but she got freaked out and said she’d have to call him back later. Now, at the party, Nicola comes in, and Spud follows her. They start talking to Stevie, and before he knows it, he’s telling them everything about Stella. He’s worried he’s boring them, and Spud eventually leaves, but Nicola at least stays to offer some advice to Stevie about Stella.
Stevie’s last meeting with Stella seems to suggest that she won’t react well to his romantic overtures and that he is waiting for a call in vain. Later sections establish that Spud is famous for not understanding women very well, so it makes sense that he leaves in the middle of the story and doesn’t know how to give advice like Nicola does.
Stevie gets pulled back into the main room of the party, where people are singing. Stevie doesn’t join in the signing at first, but other people keep encouraging him. Suddenly, someone says that there’s a phone call for Stevie. Stevie springs off the couch to take the call, and it turns out to be Stella in London.
Stevie’s obsession keeps him from interacting with the people around him. In many ways, this story shows how love—or perhaps hope—can be their own forms of addiction.
Stella reminds Stevie that she was just at her sister’s, which is why she didn’t call earlier. She says she thought about what Stevie said earlier and realized she loves Stevie too. Stevie is so happy that he cries and says he loves her too. She says the money is running out on her payphone call, so they hang up. Stevie leaves to pee, feeling euphoric.
Somewhat surprisingly, Stevie gets exactly the reply he hoped for, suggesting that his anxiety caused him to exaggerate his earlier doubts. Many of the stories in the book hinge on a character not recognizing or understanding something until later.
When Stevie gets back to the party, he puts the Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith onto the turntable. The other party guests are a little annoyed at first by the sudden change, but they’re soon happy to see Stevie so enthusiastic.
The Proclaimers are perhaps the most famous musicians ever to come from Leith, and so this section suggests that Stevie’s happiness about Stella’s call makes him feel better about the place where he lives.
Later that evening, Stevie heads to the train station to go meet Stella. Along the way, a bunch of soccer hooligans try to taunt Stevie, and one even punches him, but Stevie just wishes him happy New Year’s. The hooligans leave to harass someone else. At last, Stella steps off the train. She and Stevie kiss until almost everyone else has left the station.
The train is a hopeful symbol that symbolizes mobility, not just in the literal sense but in the sense of being able to move forward in life. While other sections of the book can be cynical, this one has an undeniably hopeful ending.
It Goes Without Saying. Rent Boy is hanging out with some friends, including Sick Boy, Spud, and Matty, when they hear a loud noise. Lesley comes into the room screaming about how Dawn is “away.” Everyone gets angry at her for shouting, but when Sick Boy goes out to investigate, he comes back looking shaken. Rent Boy goes to investigate himself and finds that Dawn, who is just a baby, is lying face down dead on a cot.
The disappearance of Dawn contrasts sharply with the end of the previous story. Whereas the previous story showed hope on New Year’s Eve, the death of Dawn (since dawn also traditionally symbolizes hope) suggests that the happiness of the previous ending doesn’t apply to everyone.
Spud and Matty panic because they can’t call the police—the place is full of drugs. Sick Boy tries to take the lead and says nobody gets to leave until they figure things out. Nobody wants to flush their supply down the toilet if they don’t have to. Matty suggests that since Dawn was Lesley’s kid, maybe it’s her responsibility to take care of everything. Spud disagrees and says Lesley needs their help. Sick Boy announces that he’s going to stay sober for the rest of his life, and Rent Boy almost believes him.
The characters’ different reactions to the events highlight their different priorities. Sick Boy is the most pragmatic, but he’s also the most selfish and uncaring. Meanwhile, Spud is the most empathetic out of all of them. Matty looks for someone else to blame, while Rent Boy mostly stands back as a passive observer, as he often does.
Matty changes his mind and says Lesley isn’t a bad parent and heroin didn’t have anything to do with it. He says Dawn could easily have died from “cot death” (sudden infant death syndrome). Everyone agrees, so Rent Boy goes back into the main room and tells Lesley that Dawn died of cot death. Lesley says she needs a shot of heroin. A part of Rent Boy enjoys having the power to make everyone else wait their turn so that Lesley can get the first shot.
Although it’s reasonable that Dawn died of sudden infant death syndrome, the novel leaves some ambiguity about whether that’s actually the case or whether that’s just the story that the main characters agree on for Lesley’s sake. The characters all seem hesitant to confront the potential consequences of their actions head on.
Junk Dilemmas No. 64. Rent Boy’s mother shouts at him from the other side of a door. He loves his mother but doesn’t want to get up to go to the door of his apartment. Instead, he cooks up another shot for himself. He decides he’ll have to make time to visit his parents sometime soon.
The theme of paralysis comes up several times in the novel and will make more sense after a later section reveals some details about Rent Boy’s family life.
Her Man. Second Prize and Tommy are at a pub when suddenly, a curly-haired man in the pub punches a woman. The woman taunts him, so he punches her again, and she bleeds. Second Prize regrets coming—he just wanted a quiet drink.
Several of the stories explore ways that relationships between men and women can go wrong, and this story provides one of the more extreme examples.
The curly-haired man and woman keep arguing. The man seems ready to hit the woman again, so Tommy intervenes to tell him to cool it. The man starts arguing with Tommy, so Tommy says they should take things outside. The man declines. Suddenly, the woman starts shouting “That’s ma fackin man yir talkin tae!” at Tommy. Tommy punches the man, anyway, knocking him off his chair. A fight breaks out and Second Prize gets involved too.
Even though Tommy and Second Prize are trying to protect the woman, she is so dedicated to upholding traditional gender norms—or perhaps so conditioned to accepting his abuse—that she stands by her “man” even after he violently punches her. This section provides a darkly humorous depiction of how strong these ideas about gender can be.
Tommy and Second Prize eventually leave the pub, cursing everyone in it. Second Prize feels queasy about what he just saw, but the next day he’ll boast about winning a fight to all his friends.
Although the characters witness horrific things over the course of the story, they frequently repress them.
Speedy Recruitment. Spud and Rent Boy are at an American-themed pub. They talk about how they both have to interview for the same job. Neither of them wants the job, but they have to take the interview seriously or else they risk losing their unemployment benefits. Rent Boy explains that the trick is to just pretend to be interested instead of saying no, then he just acts like himself, since he’ll never get a job that way.
This section highlights the absurdity of bureaucracy. While Spud and especially Rent Boy are morally ambiguous characters who sometimes do questionable things, this section arguably portrays them not as scammers but as Robin Hoods taking back from a government and larger society that have failed them.
Rent Boy’s interview is first. He hates all the people he meets at the company and thinks it takes a lot of people just to interview for a simple job as a porter. On his application, he lied about going to a fancy school, since he figured they only want to give porter jobs to people with bad educations. But one of interviewers actually went to the school Rent Boy lied about attending, and he figures he can help out a fellow alumnus.
Rent Boy is the most well-read out of all his friends, and this makes it easier for him to manipulate people of a higher social class. This section explores the prejudices that many people hold about education and how a person’s education should affect the jobs they’re qualified for.
Rent Boy panics that he might actually get the awful job. When an interviewer asks him to explain the gaps on his résumé, Rent Boy says that he is recovering from heroin addiction and wants to be honest about it with any future employers. This seems to make the interviewing team nervous, and they tell him they have other people to see.
While it seems at first like Rent Boy might eventually face the consequences of his lies, he smoothly gets out of it, showing how ineffective the bureaucracy is. Rent Boy uses the stigma against addiction to his advantage.
Spud’s interview later in the afternoon gets off to a rougher start. Instead of lying or avoiding the issue, Spud admits that he didn’t go to the fancy school he put on his application. He says that he wants the job for the money and that his biggest strength is his sense of humor. The interviewers thank him at the end and send him away.
Spud answers the questions honestly. The interviewers are shocked, suggesting that dishonesty is actually the norm during job interviews. Spud’s performance also shows that perhaps Rent Boy overthinks things and that it doesn’t take that much to outsmart the bureaucracy after all.
Spud and Rent Boy meet at the pub afterward. Spud worries maybe he did too well and will get the job. Rent Boy says they can celebrate with a drink and some speed.
Although the ending of the section is relatively cheerful, it hints at how the characters are trapped in a cycle.