A wee boy's own story: Douglas Stuart's 'Young Mungo'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday April 12, 2022
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Author Douglas Stuart
Author Douglas Stuart

There doesn't have to be penetration for there to be incest, and there doesn't have to be desire for there to be rape. These are among the easier lessons Douglas Stuart has carried forward from his Booker Prize-winning debut novel Shuggie Bain into its follow-up, Young Mungo (Grove). What it shares with its predecessor is a brutal honesty about the loathing with which the wider world responds to same-sexuality rendered in prose of blunt-force power.

It organizes itself around the same lurid elements (to call them themes would be to pretty them up) that made Shuggie Bain a sensation: grinding poverty, violent sex, multivalent incest, kitchen abortion, and non-competitive alcoholism, to name only the provables.

What's added if not strictly new is a boy-on-boy first-love story. But even that plays out as a nightmarish inversion of Romeo + Juliet, translated into Protestant v. Catholic Glasgow gang wars, a West End entertainment by and for the plebs — West Side Story without the dancing.

It bears all the marks of a book that needed to be written, and individual readers will decide if it needs to be read. It's stern, strong stuff that keeps coming at you 'out of the blue,' just as you think the shock has worn off. In no sense is Young Mungo an easy read, and in no sense is Stuart the reader's friend.

If that weren't enough, Stuart makes you work for your entertainment. At the sheer content level, Young Mungo trades in a Cormac McCarthy level of human-on-human violence, but even that becomes gruesomely familiar. Warrior-like, Stuart puts up other impediments.

At 400 pages, it's long, but what makes it seem far longer is the language, larded with a transliterated Scottish dialect that insists on "no" for "not," "nae" for "no," and "aw" for "all" and assumes that non-Glaswegian readers will work out that "scheme" means "hood" as in neighborhood, "weans" are children ("wee-uns," I'm guessing; everything is bloody wee), and "dreich" is "awful," or the opposite of "guid." The dialect is not confined to the dialogue and slows a non-Scot reader down. Not a few words look to be neologisms, however brilliant.

boundary-free fluidity

Then, too, no detail is too insignificant to escape mention. Adjectives sandbag sentences. "Mr Donnelly reached inside his thick blazer and pulled out a thin wallet." Such as there's style at all, it's in verbal collisions. There's much ado about most everything except the big stuff. The boys' first kiss, convincingly long delayed, is said to feel, to Mungo, "like hot buttered toast when you were starving. It was that good."

Narrative time frames swim with an alcoholic, boundary-free fluidity and the plot can —and often does— turn on a dime. It has three basic threads: the horror of 15-year-old Mungo's daily life, spinning around an incestuous relationship with his mother, "Mo-Maw"; the fear-drenched tenderness of first love as it springs itself on Mungo and the "papist" James; and a "fishing trip" in which Mo-Maw discharges Mungo to the ministrations of two alcoholic ex-cons, to make a man out of him. The threads are interwoven, the stories interleaved, if not at regular, reliable intervals.

The fishing expedition keeps elbowing its way onto center stage, much as one comes to resist it. Mungo's companions are an older man they call St. Christopher and a younger one Mungo calls Gallowgate.

It's no surprise when, camped out on the shores of the remote lake that the men deny is home to the legendary Loch Ness Monster, the two men visit Mungo in his tent with the trauma of first anal rape. There is big-time payback, but you'll find no spoilers here.

Tender as it genuinely is, the love story that has seized almost all of the novel's advance publicity is a subplot. Sexually, the boys get little farther than what adults would deem foreplay, though it's altogether credible. (In this novel, so unstinting in its descriptions of the male body, we see only the one cock we don't want to.)

Cool, boy

The novel does turn out to have a great, overarching theme: abandonment and the fear of it and the inseparability of the two. Family members, parents mostly but by no means exclusively, are forever ghosting each other. Even his older sister Jodie, one of the novel's most sympathetic secondary characters, makes good on her threat to leave Mungo for university.

James keeps pigeons in a doocot (dovecote) that is the novel's equivalent of Juliet's balcony. The constant in his conversations with Mungo is his intention to get far away from the scheme as soon as possible, an escape to which Mungo is neither invited nor forbidden.

It's an unsparing enactment of the core fear of first gay love: being left or being left behind. There's a "somewhere" for these guys, a place for us, but just for now in their world no one feels pretty, and it's their job to be cool, boy, real cool, and above all not get found out.

Young Mungo frequently reminded me of Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys, a 2002 Irish version of fundamentally the same story, if a novel more grounded in history and politics.

Like Shuggie, it was painstakingly crafted for a decade at the night reception desk of a hotel. O'Neill did not undertake his novel because he thought he was a writer, and it's a core part of the Stuart mythology that he, too, pre-Shuggie, identified not as a Scottish writer but as a New York-based designer.

Stuart is surely no ordinary writer, and to call Young Mungo literary fiction is almost to dismiss its genius. It's titanic, bold, and unapologetically terrifying. The ending has more cadences than a Mahler symphony. The framing device is a phantasmagoric AA meeting worthy of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (and as devoid of recovery). The writing is as clumsy — and sure — as Melville's, and at its most potent knocks you sideways. You can, if not judge, gauge this book by its cover.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart (Grove Press), $27. groveatlantic.com

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