By Douglas Stuart
390 pages. coarse press. $27.
A reviewer could generate an entire book review simply by reproducing her marginalia. It would be boring to read, but accurate, like an EKG printout. If the book in question was “Young Mungo” by Douglas Stuart, it might start with comments like “Wonderful writing!” and “Wow,” before graduating on expletives and exclamation points and wobbly underlines and question marks. Family-friendly adjectives don’t always describe the tearing of certain hearts in this lovely but sometimes overworked novel.
“Young Mungo” is a cousin of Stuart’s debut, “Shuggie Bain”, which won the Booker Prize in 2020 and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Similar to that novel, this one tells the story of a working-class boy and his alcoholic mother in Glasgow. The novels share a brutality and a tortuous, claustrophobic evocation of family life. And they offer a world of fine detail: If a perfumer wanted to bottle up the olfactory landscape of Glasgow after the Thatcher era, all the necessary ingredients could be found in Stuart’s descriptions of sausage fat, fruity fortified wine, pigeon droppings and store-bought hair bleach. .
Mungo is 15 years old and the youngest of three children. His mother, Maureen, also known as Mo-Maw, is a drunken wreck caused by frequent disappearances. This isn’t the kind of woman who, when she disappears, is supposed to be on an “Eat, Pray, Love”-esque journey of self-discovery. This is the kind of woman whose children are immediately afraid that she is not only dead, but also horribly and specifically dead: stripped with a steak knife and dumped naked in a river.
We first meet Mungo when he is taken from his house by two strange men for a weekend of camping and fishing. The full, dark purpose of the trip is unclear, and the fact that it’s been approved by Maureen — who waves her son with pink-painted fingernails away from the window of the family’s tenement — is ominous.
The eerie events of that journey are interspersed with chapters about James, an older boy from the neighborhood who Mungo meets in an empty lot next to a highway, where the elder has built a ‘doocot’ structure for keeping pigeons. James’ touch, unlike that of other local boys, doesn’t make Mungo flinch to defend himself. The two fall in love, and how could they not? James is resourceful and looks “like an oil painting”; Mungo is undefended and graceful, with skin “so creamy you wanted to bring a spoon to him.” With James, Mungo discovers a love not rooted in submission.
But homophobia is a harmful fog. Both boys are told amply and colorfully that they have to pull themselves together. The prerequisites of masculinity in this biome are possessing an insanely high pain threshold and the ability to use torture. A boy can be considered a man if, for example, he can fall from a construction machine at a great height, crush his arm, pee on his own in pain and still avoid crying like a baby. He may be a man if he is able to smash a rock over the head of a cop, stab a night watchman, cut faces and shatter teeth.
The question then is whether love can survive this unimaginably hostile environment. Just when you think the soil is too acidic for these tender sprouts to bloom, Mungo and James find new reserves of durability. Being sensitive to the world means being ravaged by it, but it also allows you to adapt.
If Stuart makes a mistake, it’s on the excess side. Many passages would have benefited from remaining as subtext. In this, it’s as if Stuart allowed the CliffsNotes version of “Young Mungo” to penetrate right into the novel. We understand how Mungo feels when someone undermines his humanity with a snappy remark; we don’t need the exposition of, “Here was another person who told him what he needed, how he should act, the person he should be. Another person who thought he wasn’t enough as he was.”
This is happening more and more often, and it is puzzling: When an author repeatedly insists on telling what he has already shown, is it because he does not trust the reader’s attention or because he is questioning his own effectiveness? Is it condescension or self-doubt?
Here, as he did in ‘Shuggie Bain’, Stuart mixes the self-conscious floweriness and emotional technicolor of a Douglas Sirk melodrama with the ambient violence of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. As Mungo undergoes one atrocity after another – beatings, assault, abuse and exploitation of every form – the specificity of each episode threatens to fade into an aesthetic of general misery.
Some readers will feel pushed into the role of a miserable tourist. Others will react as director Rainer Werner Fassbinder reacted to Sirk’s films, blinded in unintelligible reverence. “A great, crazy movie about life and death,” as Fassbinder described Sirk’s “Imitation of Life.”
There’s an insane grandeur in “Young Mungo,” along with corny excesses and moments with the explanatory flatness of a TV voiceover. Yet blaming a novel of this register for intemperance feels like blaming an opera for being “too loud.” The volume is part of the point. Sometimes you cry. You often rejoice.