Romeo and Romeo in Glasgow: that seems like a basis for a beautiful love story, where you hope that the ending is a little less dramatic than in the heterosexual original. However, this version is set in the ‘half rotten’ Glasgow where the consequences of Thatcher’s politics are felt every day, where unemployment is a common disease and where you can only survive by assuming that love and pragmatism are the same.
In Mungothe second novel by Booker Prize 2020 winner Douglas Stuart with its debut Shuggie Bain, once again revolves around the seamy side of Glasgow, in which Mungo, the youngest of a fatherless family, and an alcoholic mother have to cope. This is also a macho environment where emotions are knocked out and where people don’t know what to do with love. Unlike in Stuart’s debut, however, this time it is not the love between the mother and the gentle son that keeps the story going, but the betrayal.
Neglected and lonely, Mungo finds love with the Catholic James. This James, whose father is usually on an oil rig and whose mother is deceased, keeps a dovecote. They secretly meet, while their toxic environment is disgusted by homosexuality (and thinks you need to see a doctor for it); they grow up in a world where two religions are not exactly allowed to lie on a pillow. Both may be named after a saint (Saint Mungo was the bringer of faith to England in the sixth century and both founder and patron saint of Glasgow), but little is spared.
Also read: ‘The Thatcher era was born of a total lack of compassion’
In the violent macho world in which Mungo grows up, it is important that he becomes a man faster, which is why Mo-Ma (Mungo’s mother) gives her son to two men she met at an AA meeting. With these two, Mungo will go camping, learn everything a son should be able to do without a father and immediately be rid of his ‘sissy’. Stuart alternates this weekend’s story with the run-up to this weekend a few months earlier. What went horribly wrong there, came to an (unlikely, not mentioned here to avoid spoilers) eruption that weekend.
Where it in Shuggie Bain was not so much about the story as it was about creating a setting and the unconditional search for love of a son for his alcoholic mother, Mungo little of it. Love is literally and figuratively rammed out of all the characters. Anyone who wants a slightly better life will crawl into bed with a smelly teacher. You increase your status with your friends with as much violence as possible, and whoever is injured you leave or kill.
What is strong about Stuart’s stories is that he has a good eye for detail and for imposed inequality. Without preaching, he shows what it is like to have ‘not the right background’ for something, what it does to a society when there is no compassion or vision of a future. The people who are on the financially good side of society also have nothing to gain. There people prefer veiled terms, so someone is not homosexual, but ‘artistic’.
Sometimes the details don’t add much (for example, when a blackjack picks up food scraps for the umpteenth time, you’ll know at some point), but some are also brilliantly effective. For example, if Mungo sees his mother lying after a man is drooling like a ‘rodent’ against his drunken mother and Mungo has chased the man away, it will read: ‘He returned to Mo-Ma and pulled the sweaty bed sheets over her. She didn’t move. Her head hung back, her mouth was open, smeared repulsively with her own lipstick. The Scarecrow. He’d pretend she’d been a scarecrow all along.’ And to round off the image of the mother in one sentence: “There she lay, her memory wiped by drink, like a baby who wouldn’t sleep until she was swaddled.” In that last passage, the young Shuggie in slightly older Mungo comes into view for a moment, but it’s one of the few moments where there is still a hint of compassion.
Love and compassion have largely been turned into anger in this novel. Unlike Shuggie, Mungo is angry, aware of his indulgence in harming himself and others. “I wanted to write with love so that people could feel something of the grief, loss, meaninglessness and waste of a life. But not about the anger, because I’m not angry,” said Stuart in NRC in an interview after he won the Booker Prize. Anger seems to have won the battle over love in this book. It improves the credibility of the story.