Review of Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

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Few novelists have ever risen through the ranks so quickly, but the suddenness of Stuart’s success belies years of struggle. His debut novel, “Shuggie Bain,” was rejected by dozens of publishers before Grove Atlantic finally recognized the genius of the manuscript. He went on to win the Booker Prize in 2020, propelling the Scottish-born American writer to worldwide fame.

Now, just two years later, Stuart is back with another masterful family drama set in the economic ruin of Glasgow after the devastating reign of Margaret Thatcher. It is a hopeless realm of demolished industries, drug addiction and generational poverty. As in “Shuggie Bain”, the protagonist is a boy, the youngest of three siblings raised by an alcoholic mother. But while Stuart didn’t stray far from the scaffolding of his first novel, he managed to produce a story with a very different shape and pace.

Set in the early 1990s, “Young Mungo” alternates between two tracks about five months apart. In the previous sections, we are introduced to the famous Hamilton family. Hamish, Mungo’s older brother, is a Protestant gang leader who makes up for his diminished size with excessive brutality. Stuart choreographs the street brawls of young hoodlums with all their adrenaline rush and tactical ingenuity. Hamish hates the police, Catholics and “poofers”, but the one thing he was able to teach Mungo was that “it was dazzling, how something wonderful could be destroyed so quickly and so completely”.

Jodie, the only daughter, has taken on all the household responsibilities neglected by their selfish mother, who disappears for days to pursue another man or a bottle. Mo-Maw, as they call it, is like a pickled nightmare from the mind of Tennessee Williams – 80-proof selfishness heavily flavored with vanity and sentimentality.

But Mungo loves Mo-Maw unconditionally; it is its nature, its tragic flaw. “Try to remember the good bits, huh?” he said during one of his unexpected disappearances. “She’s not bad at all.”

“Honestly,” sighs a neighbor, “you’re all kindness and no common sense.”

The raw poetry of Stuart’s prose is perfect for capturing the open mind of this handsome boy, with his odd facial tics. “Mungo had all this love to give,” Stuart writes, “and it lay around like a ripe fruit and no one bothered to pick it up.” Deprived of the attachment he craves, he has become hypersensitive to the static electricity of rage that constantly builds and discharges in their seedy apartment. This role made him waver on the threshold of adulthood, despite being only a year younger than his sister. “His unruly hair made women want to mother him,” Stuart writes. “But this sweetness has unsettled other boys.”

The most charming chapters of the novel tell of Mungo’s budding romance with a nice teenager named James who breeds carrier pigeons. He’s Catholic, but that’s not the biggest mark against him. Mungo and James have no words – at least no positive words – for who they are or how they feel, but with hesitant pleasure they try to figure out how to express their affection. Lying in the grass with James watching the clouds go by one afternoon, Mungo notes that “waves of beauty washed over him followed by waves of shame. They came like Jodie alternating hot and cold taps and trying to balance a bath with him already in it.

The way Stuart sculpts this oasis amid a rising tide of homophobia imbues these scenes with an almost unbearable intensity. But the dangers Mungo and James face are beyond doubt. On the streets of Glasgow, gay men – or men suspected of being gay – are routinely beaten for sport by bullies like Hamish. The demanding bachelor who lives above the Hamiltons is viewed with open distaste. Mungo can hear his mother’s alarm when she wonders how to make him a man – a phrase repeated so often that it seems to sprout around Mungo like bars on a cage.

In fact, the whole novel revolves around this panic over Mungo’s supposedly endangered masculinity. In alternate chapters, we follow the young man on a fishing trip over a holiday weekend. Having grown up so poor he never left town, Mungo is nervously excited to see a forest, a loch, a fish! His mother left him in the care of two men from her AA meeting. Old St. Christopher and his fit young pal seem, at first glance, like harmless drunks, Scottish versions of the King and Duke drifting down the Mississippi with Huck Finn.

But these chapters are steeped in menace. Stuart quickly proves to be an extraordinarily effective thriller writer. He is able to excruciatingly pull the strings of suspense while sensitively exploring the confused mind of this sweet teenager trying to make sense of his sexuality.

The result is a novel that simultaneously heads into two crises: what happened with James in Glasgow and what might happen to Mungo in the wilds of Scotland. One is an anticipated calamity of which we can only intuit; the other a coming horror that we can only dread. But even as Stuart pulls those timelines together like a pair of scissors, he creates a little space for Mungo’s future, a little mercy for this spirited young man.

Ron Charles writes about books for the Washington Post.

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