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Brace yourself for 'Young Mungo,' a nuanced heartbreaker of a novel

Young Mungo, by Douglas Stewart
Grove Atlantic

A coming-of-age story about a gay, working-class boy set in 1980s Glasgow, in which the characters sometimes speak in Scots dialect. Such a tale is not an easy sell, which is why Douglas Stuart's debut novel, Shuggie Bain, was initially turned down by over 30 publishers before finding an audience and eventually winning the Booker Prize in 2020.

It's tough to follow such a success story, but if Stuart was cowed, his latest novel doesn't betray any artistic hesitations. Young Mungo, like its predecessor, is a nuanced and gorgeous heartbreaker of a novel. Reading it is like peering into the apartment of yet another broken family whose Glasgow tenement might be down the road from Shuggie Bain's.

The two characters, in fact, share some crucial similarities: like Shuggie, 15-year-old Mungo Hamilton is gay and Mungo's mother is also an alcoholic. What's different about Stuart's new novel is its form: The outer frame here is a suspense story; a story not just of innocence lost, but slaughtered.

The novel opens on a scene of Mungo being led away from his tenement home as his mother, drinking a tea mug of fortified wine, watches impassively from a window. He's, reluctantly, in the company of two men, strangers, both hard-looking. They're taking Mungo off for a camping trip, where he's to be taught to gut fish, make a fire, learn to be a man.

Sandwiched between the two men in the back of a bus, Mungo has a bad feeling, so his chronic facial tic starts acting up. Mungo suffers from anxiety; as his kindly older sister, Jodie, reflects: "There was a gentleness to his being that put girls at ease; they wanted to make a pet of him. But that sweetness unsettled other boys."

Stuart structures this story mostly in the form of a flashback to the months preceding this menacing camping trip. As he did so deftly in Shuggie Bain, Stuart takes us readers deep into the working class world of Glasgow — here, circa early 1990s — where jobs and trade unions have been gutted.

Stuart, who grew up in this world, has said in interviews that he doesn't want to take middle class readers on what he's called a "working class poverty safari." Accordingly he doesn't translate, but lets the life of the tenements make itself known though his precisely observed and often wry style. For instance, here's a scene where Mungo has been summoned by his brother Hamish, a vicious teenage gang leader and new father. Mungo steps into the flat where Hamish and his gang are watching TV:

The settee had six of the boys from the builder's yard crammed on to it. They were packed thigh to thigh and spilled over the arms of the small sofa. In their nylon tracksuits they looked like so many plastic bags all stuffed together; ...

On the soundless television, an English woman was dipping a vase into liquid and showing the audience how to crackle glaze the surface of it. Each one of the young men was staring slack-jawed at the screen. On the low table in front of them sat a bundle of folded nappies amongst a pile of stolen car radios, half-drunk bottles of MD 20/20, and one very large tomahawk. . . .

The woman stopped glazing her vase and held it out for the cameras to see the intricate swirls. The young men looked from one to another in amazement; white pearls of acne flushed across their foreheads. "That's pure beautiful," said [a] ginger-headed boy. They all nodded in agreement."

Immediately after that art appreciation interlude, Hamish forcibly arms Mungo with a switchblade and insists Mungo accompany him on a job — all to toughen him up. The toxic masculinity of Mungo's world is as pervasive and aggressive as the beat of the techno music the gang listens to. Then, one day: deliverance. Mungo meets a boy named James who keeps pigeons in a dovecote on a sliver of nearby wasteland. They fall in love, and, as if that weren't dangerous enough, James is Catholic and Mungo is Protestant.

We readers know none of this will end well, but it's a testament to Stuart's unsparing powers as a storyteller that we can't possibly anticipate how very badly — and baroquely — things will turn out. Young Mungo is a suspense story wrapped around a novel of acute psychological observation. It's hard to imagine a more disquieting and powerful work of fiction will be published anytime soon about the perils of being different.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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