Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1293
Mark Renton is a heroin addict with a reputation for randomly kicking his habit and relapsing just as suddenly. His propensity to do both is a joke among his friends and acquaintances. Mark prepares to go with his friend Sick Boy to see their dealer, Mother Superior, as Sick Boy...
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Mark Renton is a heroin addict with a reputation for randomly kicking his habit and relapsing just as suddenly. His propensity to do both is a joke among his friends and acquaintances. Mark prepares to go with his friend Sick Boy to see their dealer, Mother Superior, as Sick Boy is in withdrawal. Mark and Sick Boy belong to a group of heroin addicts known as the Skag Boys, and most people except for their closest associates try to avoid them.
During the Edinburgh Festival, Mark attempts to imitate Sick Boy’s method of coming off heroin. He uses one hit of heroin to help him deal with the relative torture of going to the grocery store—a place he typically avoids because it is full of nonaddicts who annoy him. Mark realizes that, at least for the time being, Mother Superior has disappeared, and the only other drug contact he has is Mike Forrester. Mark goes to Mike’s place to get a hit, but Mike senses Mark’s desperation and makes him suffer through a number of jokes and mind games before he will give Mark anything. Finally, Mike produces opium suppositories, which he claims are the perfect thing to help Mark break his addiction to drugs for good, as they are slow release. Mark declares that he wants a hit of heroin, but he pays for the opium anyway.
Soon, both Sick Boy and Mark are off heroin. Sick Boy is only interested in attracting women, and Mark is concerned about Sick Boy’s sexist attitudes, which annoy him. As Sick Boy contemplates which of the young women he has just met will have sex with him, the thought of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) courses through his mind. He reasons that if did not contract AIDS by sharing needles with the rest of the Skag Boys, then he could not get it by having intercourse with a woman. He is reminded of a friend of both himself and Mark, Goagsie, who is human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-positive: It is unclear how Goagsie contracted the virus. Those with HIV and AIDS serve as a warning to others who are at risk, especially heroin addicts. Sick Boy laments that, without heroin or a woman and her money, he has nothing with which to fill himself. Since he has given up heroin as being unsafe, all he has left is women and their money.
The Skag Boys are awakened to the screaming of a woman named Lesley: Dawn, her baby, is dead. Mark notices that the infant resembles Sick Boy; however, he realizes that she could have been the child of any of the Skag Boys.
At night, the Skag Boys and their friends and acquaintances are at a pub. Mark fetches drinks for everyone. When Begbie finishes drinking from a glass pitcher, he throws it over his shoulder and off the balcony. The act creates chaos. The scene is indicative of why Mark has grown tired of Begbie’s company. He has been forced to be his friend since elementary school, but, as Begbie’s violence has increased, so has Mark’s impatience with him.
Tommy, a soccer-playing friend of the Skag Boys, is dumped by his girlfriend Lizzy. He goes to visit Mark while Mark is relapsing and back on heroin. Tommy is curious about heroin and what it does for people. Mark introduces Tommy to heroin.
Without heroin, Mark experiences clarity of thought and an analytic ability that eludes him when he is on drugs. At a nightclub, Mark notices the ease with which Sick Boy and Begbie gain the affection of women. He tries to convince himself that one of the women is unattractive but corrects himself as he realizes that his thoughts are fueled by jealousy. At the end of the night, Mark and Spud take speed and discuss going back on heroin, an idea that Spud does not like.
Before the night is over, Mark meets Dianne. They go to Dianne’s place, which turns out to be the house she lives in with her parents. Dianne is not a grown woman but a girl in her first year of high school. Mark finds this out the next morning, and he resolves to avoid future sexual contact with Dianne. Mark’s brother, Billy, reenlists in the army and is sent to Belfast.
Mark and Spud return to their heroin habits. To support their habits, they shoplift and are arrested for stealing books. Spud is sentenced to jail immediately, but Mark is released upon the condition that he continue trying to get off drugs. Afterward, Mark, his friends, his parents, and Billy meet at a pub for a celebration of sorts. Spud’s mother comes in, accusing the Skag Boys of causing her son’s downfall. Begbie informs her that he tried to get Spud off drugs. Although he is surrounded by everyone he knows, Mark feels alone. He goes to see Mother Superior to get heroin, leaving his party behind. He subsequently overdoses. His parents keep him at home to get him clean.
Mark’s brother Billy is killed in a bombing in Ireland. Mark giggles at the funeral. The mourners return to the Renton house after the burial. Mark leaves the funeral before his family and gets a ride from Tommy and others, who will not go inside. Once the rest of the family arrives, Mark has sex with his brother’s pregnant girlfriend, Sharon. They go to his apartment and talk.
Mark experiences his second funeral after his friend Matty dies of toxoplasmosis. Matty was infected with HIV. He acquired a kitten in an attempt to win back his girlfriend, but she refused the kitten, so he was forced to take it home, where it defecated and urinated as it pleased. The kitten’s excrement created a breeding ground for the toxoplasmosis that killed Matty. Mark visits Mother Superior after the dealer has had his leg amputated as a result of injecting heroin into it. Mark marvels that the former drug dealer is still HIV negative. Tommy, however, is HIV positive.
The Skag Boys’ last group activity is an accidental opportunity to carry out the largest drug deal of their lives. They acquire almost twenty thousand pounds worth of heroin from Mike Forrester, who is anxious to get rid of it. The group goes to London to carry out the transaction with big-time dealers. Pete Gilbert is the London contact that Sick Boy acquires through an older man, Andreas. When the meeting is set up, Pete offers the group from Edinburgh sixteen thousand pounds for the drugs. They take it, even though they want four thousand more.
After the deal, Spud and Second Prize go to London’s SoHo neighborhood to celebrate. Mark is left in charge of the money at Andreas’s house. Neither Sick Boy nor Begbie trusts Spud or Second Prize with the money. Begbie and Sick Boy go to play pool. The drug money is in Begbie’s athletic bag, and with Andreas distracted by his girlfriend and the Skag Boys out of the way, Mark is free to steal the money and use it to fund a new life in Amsterdam.
Mark decides the only one of his former friends he will try to compensate is Spud, because Spud has always meant well and has never been cared for. Mark reasons that Sick Boy would have stolen the money himself if he had had the chance. Begbie is the excuse Mark gives himself for cheating his entire group of friends. He theorizes that Begbie’s psychotic behavior is reason enough to disappoint him. Mark makes his way through London on his way to Amsterdam. He remains hopeful for his future.