A depressed queer teenager struggles in post industrial Glasgow, just like in Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize winner ‘Shuggie Bain’
There is a certainty to the degradation in Douglas Stuart’s new novel, Young Mungo. There isn’t a pantyhose untorn, a bottle undrunk, a plate unstained, a character who isn’t in some way defiled. That Stuart is able to find tenderness, love and humor through all this blood and shit and fear and loathing testifies to his strength as a novelist; that these sentiments can sometimes feel stilted testifies to his weakness.
Stuart’s first novel Shuggie Bain rattled between slush piles before Grove Atlantic published it in 2020, to rapturous reviews and a Booker Prize. Young Mungo, touches the same territory, both literally and figuratively. There is the setting – depressed, post-industrial Glasgow, and the characters – a queer teenager and his alchoholic mother. The novels share the same strengths and the same weaknesses, which may, for some readers, be a weakness in itself.
The novel’s protagonist, Mungo, is a fifteen-year-old boy whose sensitivity is as incongruous with his surroundings as his mother’s habit of answering the phone with “the Hamilton residence.” Stuart deploys posh affectations such as this as a source of humor throughout the novel: they live in a cramped slum apartment strewn with empty bottles and cigarette ash.
The narrative is non-linear, and we follow Mungo both as he begins a relationship with a neighborhood boy and, months later, goes on a fishing trip with two male acquaintances of his mother. This structure, flashing forward and backward, keeps the tension at a boil and emphasizes the relief that romantic love can bring from suffering.
This contrast, between love and violence, can feel forced as Stuart sometimes slips into a romantic lyricism where simplicity would have sufficed. Describing Mungo’s first kiss, Stuart writes, “it was like hot buttered toast when you were starving”; describing his second, he writes, “the tongue tasted sweet like cream and powdered vanilla, and his mouth was hot like burning peat and golden tobacco”. In other words, the kisses were nice. This elaborate metaphorization becomes conspicuous when so much of the novel moves in the same simple, slang-rich tongue of its characters.
Considering the novel’s well-observed, laconic earnesty, the lyricism is also un-necessary. Again and again Stuart is able to, with a single turn of phrase, bring an insight to his characters so piercing it hurts to read. Consider this scene from the fishing trip, where Mungo “wound on his disposable camera and took the time to frame a photo that no one would care to see,” or Stuart’s description of a woman swallowing her screams while she is beaten by her husband: “even as he was battering her, she worried about his good name.”
There is a detachment in these sentences, a laconic distance that renders their sentiment even more devastating. Such is Stuart’s devotion to his characters, his sympathy and his love, that even his missteps are endearing.