“The day was flat,” goes the first sentence of Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning bestseller Shuggie Bain. The prose of the novel is flat, too: a plodding, low-realist style that shades frequently into unintentional hilarity.
As Shuggie’s father, Shug, drives his taxi around Glasgow, “he wondered whether taxi driving was in his blood. Between him and his brother Rascal it was practically a family business. His father would have enjoyed it too, had the shipbuilding not killed him.” Must one have a heart of stone to read about the life of Shug Bain without laughing?
The adventures of poor Shuggie – the gay teenage son of the abusive Shug and the alcoholic Agnes – constitute a parade of misery. Preyed upon and abandoned by the adults in his life and living alone aged 15 in a rented tenement room, Shuggie has only his collection of porcelain dolls to comfort him: “a hundred pairs of painted eyes, all broken-hearted or lonely . . . He had spent hours with their made-up stories. The thick-armed blacksmith amongst the angel-faced choirboys, or his favourite, the seven or so giant baby kittens smiling and menacing the lazy shepherd.” Baby kittens? Just kittens, surely. And why “seven or so”? Is it seven or isn’t it?
Meanwhile, “Shuggie sat in the dark listening to the unsteady snores through the tenement walls.” “The morning chill had turned his naked thighs a tartan blue.” Elsewhere, characters have “alabaster” shoulders. “Catherine stole a sly glance at her mother.” “Shug narrowed his eyes.” Doesn’t all this sound familiar? The porcelain dolls are the giveaway. They’re kitsch, and so is Shuggie Bain.
Young Mungo is Shuggie Redux. We’re back in the Glasgow tenements. Period: the early 1990s.
Mungo Hamilton is 15, Protestant, and beginning to deduce the nature of his sexual self. His mother, Mo-Maw, is an alcoholic: neglectful, capricious, often absent. His brother Hamish is a violent psychopath who leads gang raids and totes a homemade tomahawk. His sister Jodie, doing her best, is sleeping with an older married man. His dad – luckily, for those of us who remember the depredations of Shug Bain – is dead (“Mungo wondered what it would be like to have a father”).
One day, in “a quiet, forgotten place behind the tenements”, “on the edge of the motorway”, Mungo meets Jamie Jamieson, who is Catholic and who keeps pigeons. Mungo and Jamie fall in love, crossing the cultural boundaries. Will things go wrong?
Of course they will; though for much of the novel we don’t know precisely how. What we do know is that, in the aftermath, Mungo has been sent out of Glasgow on a rural fishing trip with two shady sots nicknamed Gallowgate and St Christopher. We know they’re shady because, early on, they ask Mungo, “So huv ye goat any pubes yet?” (This also happened in Shuggie Bain.) The point of the fishing trip is, according to Mo-Maw, to “make a man out of ye”. In a way it does; but poor Mungo has to suffer quite extensively before we get there.
And so does the reader. Art, let me say at this point, is only partly about what you represent. It’s also very much about how you represent it. In other words, style matters.
Let’s look at the style of Young Mungo. “The city was alive with the sound of buskers” goes a fairly typical descriptive phrase. Mungo’s tormentors, St Christopher and Gallowgate, regard him with “slitted eyes”. Looking at Gallowgate, Mungo thinks, “the years had clearly been hard”. The two drunks “exchanged a sly look”. “St Christopher nodded in agreement.” The natural landscape around them on the fishing trip is “unspoiled”.
More cliches: Mungo’s “hazel eyes could bathe you in their glorious warmth”. He has an “unruly mop” of hair that “made women want to mother him”. He stands “stock-still”. He watches a young gang member “flush scarlet”. Then “They raced, lungs bursting, through the wet streets.” Of Mo-Maw: “The demon was always there just under the surface, even on good days.” As Mo-Maw waves Mungo off on the fishing trip, “her son lowered his gaze”. Mungo’s sister Jodie cries “rivulets of tears”; her face has a “waxy pallor”. Birds are described as “swooping”. Jodie watches the hairs on her lover’s back “dance in the breeze”. When he takes her to a fairground, “The lights, the sugary candy floss and sweet peanutty smell of popcorn had made for a dizzying night far from home.”
In perhaps the most representative phrase in the whole book, we hear that “a lethargic malaise had fallen over the tenements” (you don’t, of course, need “lethargic” when you’ve already got “malaise”). It is not the tenements but the prose that has been afflicted by malaise. Young Mungo has the aura of a deeply felt book; it often achieves a sombre pathos; but more often it wobbles messily back and forth across the unforgiving line that separates pathos from bathos.
Kevin Power’s The Written World: Essays and Reviews will be published by The Lilliput Press in May