Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart - review by Anthony Cummins

Anthony Cummins

Buckfast & Broken Noses

Young Mungo


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Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize two years ago for his first novel, Shuggie Bain, which is set in 1980s Glasgow and follows a boy who, ill at ease with the burds-and-fitba chat on his housing scheme, struggles to take care of his alcoholic mother, Agnes. Stuart has been open about the book’s relationship to his own background, but while you can’t really write a misery memoir twice, nothing stops a novelist from having a stamping ground.

Young Mungo takes place in the early 1990s on a violent East End estate high on sugar and booze. It’s the early 1990s. Mungo, fifteen, is the youngest of three children raised by single mother Maureen, or Mo-Maw, who is barely twice his age and has been absent for long stretches; no one remembers his stabbed father. His brother, Hamish, a gang leader with a baby by an underage girl, sells drugs out of her mother’s mouse-ridden council flat; his sister, Jodie, is being groomed by her secondary-school teacher, a married man who likes ‘to pick his nose after they fucked and wipe it on the underside of the veneer’ of a fold-out table in the caravan he takes her to.

Unlike in Shuggie Bain, the action spans months rather than years, the narrative alternating between ‘The May After’ and ‘The January Before’. The latter chapters are fuelled by the everyday tumult of Mungo’s home life; the former are more mysterious. When the book starts, Mungo is heading north for a weekend’s fishing in the unlikely company of two ex-convicts whom Mo-Maw met at Alcoholics Anonymous. The trip is supposed to be curative, organised after Mungo was beaten up in circumstances that become clearer the more we read about ‘The January Before’. We learn in particular of Mungo’s blossoming relationship with James, a pigeon-racing Catholic boy who lives on his estate and is largely left to his own devices by
a widowed father who works offshore laying pipes in the North Sea.

That you’re prepared to overlook the convenience of James’s family circumstances for the sake of the plot is a mark of Stuart’s storytelling skill. The drama of the novel turns on the knotty tangle of obligations resulting from the boys’ need to hide their dangerous attraction to one another in a violent city self-medicating with sugar and alcohol – or both together, as in buckfast, which acts as the driver of Mo-Maw’s solitary crying jags.

Part of the novel’s point is that love, or lust, can flower anywhere, and need not be fragrant or exalted: when James and Mungo kiss, James farts ‘a long, growling thunder. It stunk heavy and rancid, pure dairy and white sugar.’ This earthiness doesn’t always feel noble. Early on we see Hamish ‘scooping spoonfuls of cereal into his mouth as trails of chocolatey milk streamed down his hairless chest’; later, we see cab drivers at a snack bar ‘standing slack-mouthed, huge gobbets of half-chewed sausage sitting on their fat tongues.’ Boys making trouble on the street are ‘apes’; a pram-pushing young mother with ‘large hoop earrings’ and ‘chewed claws’ resembles ‘a warrior queen, her hair scraped back and caught into a bejewelled headband’. Mungo kisses a girl who opens her mouth ‘wide as a bin lid’. There’s a woman whose skin has ‘yellowed like old kitchen paint’; someone else has a ‘yellow face wrinkling like an overripe apple.’

If you’re generous, the last couple – and there are many other examples – make a point about public health in Glasgow, but Shuggie Bain (in which pretty much everyone has ruined teeth) seemed to manage it without lapsing into revulsion. By the time we’re told of someone ‘looking for something sugary to eat, and for something electrical to pawn’, it’s hard to know whether to laugh. And yet you can’t deny the tense power of Stuart’s child’s-eye view of a downtrodden community bonded by experiences no one quite wants to name. Witness the flashback involving a younger Hamish pouring Mo-Maw’s whiskey down the sink, only to have to hear her taking a stranger to bed to get more. ‘Do ye know what ah just had to do?’ she says to the boy. ‘Well, that was all your fault, so it was.’

There’s a degree of speechifying that suggests a mantle worn more heavily than when Stuart wrote Shuggie Bain. A defeat for Rangers occasions a bout of violence culminating in a melodramatic homily on the ills of deindustrialisation. A pawnbroker complains that trade isn’t what it used to be: ‘Decent families needing a wee bit o’ cash to tide them over tae Friday. But now it’s aw junkies rippin’ electronics out of their mammies’ flats and puntin’ it fur skag … And who wants tae buy used stuff anymair? It’s aw new, new, new wi’ people these days.’ Hamish gets het up about students arriving from England to indulge in poverty tourism (a moment that calls into question the novel’s own effects).

Shuggie Bain’s most troubling scene turns on the main character’s ambiguous involvement in his mother’s death: the implication was that he had to choose life for himself over life for his mother. The urge to survive exerts an even greater toll in Young Mungo: the protagonist is put through a succession of harrowing experiences that force him to kill not once but twice. These grisly events, which involve an exploitative detour into the perspective of a paedophile, are offset by a deft twist as Mungo finds himself with cause to be grateful for the stifling honour codes that for the rest of the book imperil his liberty and safety.

Jodie, for her part, earns a university place to study biology, which suggests there are other, less bloody exit strategies for leaving the hellscape Young Mungo lays out – just not for men, it seems to say, which risks sounding rich from a writer who now lives in New York. The territory has the air of scorched earth. Being indelibly associated with it might be Douglas Stuart’s cross to bear as a novelist, but the fiction he has published in the New Yorker suggests he has no shortage of other tracks to follow. The next book doesn’t have to be Shuggie III.

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