Douglas Stuart finds beauty in horrible things in ‘Young Mungo’

“I don’t ever think this is a good character or a bad character. I just think these are people doing things that make sense to them,” says Douglas Stuart, author of “Young Mungo.”

  • “I don’t ever think this is a good character or a bad character. I just think these are people doing things that make sense to them,” says Douglas Stuart, author of “Young Mungo.”
  • “Young Mungo,” by Douglas Stuart, Knopf Canada, 400 pages, $35

When his first book, “Shuggie Bain” — about a young man growing up in public housing in 1980s Glasgow with an alcoholic mother — won the 2020 Booker Prize, Douglas Stuart became one of only six writers to win for a debut work (they include George Saunders and Arundhati Roy).

That story was based on his own childhood — Shuggie was the youngest child of an alcoholic mother and was bullied for being gay. It was, however, a devastatingly beautiful book, capturing the tension between beauty and misery, love and neglect.

“Young Mungo” is his page-turning, beautifully written followup to that debut, which also takes place in the working class housing estates of Glasgow, Scotland, in the estate that is in real life close to the one where “Shuggie Bain” is set and the one Stuart grew up in.

“Although they deal with a similar mirror, they’re very different types of books. One is incredibly propulsive and self-assured, the other one is … world-building. It’s a portrait. I think that’s me learning my craft, that’s me evolving,” Stuart said in an interview from his home in New York’s East Village, a place he says has retained its personality and its grit.

Mungo lives with his often absent mother; his older sister, Jodie, who juggles finishing high school, working and trying to keep Mungo fed; and, peripherally, his older brother Hamish, who at 20 is living with the family of his 15-year-old girlfriend, the mother of his baby.

The book opens with a scene that sets up the tension: two male friends of his mother’s are taking Mungo to the country to go camping and fishing, experience the outdoors. Mungo has never set foot out of Glasgow; she hopes it will broaden his horizons. It quickly becomes clear the men are alcoholics and his horizons might be broadened in ways she never expected. Stuart describes one of the men: “He was a man covered in words: from the logos on his chest, to his shoes to his jeans to his skin. He had written on his flesh with a sewing needle, women’s names, gang names …”

This book has a propulsion to it — it’s a page-turner, certainly — but that propulsion reinforces the plot and the characters. “A lot of what the book is about is futures, loneliness and belonging, but it’s about each of these characters moving towards a future, their futures,” Stuart said.

They’re all on the cusp of something and the siblings all go in different directions, as families usually do. But their future relies on mobility and mobility relies on things like luck, opportunity, role models. “Sometimes in families futures take us all in the same direction and we remain a family. And sometimes it doesn’t,” Stuart said.

There’s a heartbreaking scene in which Hamish is told by one of his teachers that he’s “not university material.” That, instead, he should get a job at the shipyards. He goes to apply for a job, to be faced with the exodus of thousands of men who have just been laid off in the horrible Thatcher years of the 1970s. Hope disappears. Jodie, on the other hand, is intent on university and will likely make it there, even as she’s exploited along the way.

It might be easy to cast judgment on their choices but for Stuart’s ability to write his characters with humanity and empathy — their circumstances aren’t easy, are fraught with poverty and sectarianism and violence. Leaving your community can leave you lonely.

“Sometimes within working-class communities there’s a wonderful sense of community and collectivism and comradeship, especially for communities that have gone through these big social moments … like mass deindustrialization,” he said. On the other hand, “when you live in poverty, or when you live in some of these housing schemes, they become your entire world, which almost becomes a little bit overwhelming, a little bit suffocating.”

There’s a need to fit in because it’s your entire world — tricky, particularly, for a young gay man. The story is also about Protestant Mungo discovering love with a Catholic boy.

“I don’t ever think this is a good character or a bad character. I just think these are people doing things that make sense to them. They might not always be the best choices, but they make sense to them,” Stuart said.

The strong mother character is a force within the book, as it was within “Shuggie Bain,” although this time Stuart wanted to write a much younger mother, a woman who had three children at a very young age but wanted now to get on with her own life.

“I think one of the most feminist things you can do is write a character that’s conflicted without having to exploit them. Without having to make every mother a working class hero or every mother a put-upon saint,” said Stuart. There are so few authentically written stories of poverty or the working class or the underclass.

In a narrative that weaves seamlessly back and forth between the camping trip and Mungo’s life before the trip, Stuart creates a world we can almost feel. Some of his lines can take a reader’s breath away as he finds ways of describing beauty even in misery. Lines like this, when Mungo is a passenger in a car his brother stole: “Mungo laid his forehead against the cool glass and watched a thousand stories go by: young, underdressed women going out for drinks after work … So many lives were happening only two miles away from his and they all seemed brighter than his own.”

“When I’m describing beautiful things I like to try to describe them in very plain language so that when I’m describing horrible things there’s still a beauty to it,” Stuart said. “There’s a beauty to a mother’s body, always, even if she’s passed out and she’s drunk. There can be a real beauty and ugliness, and that tension is important.”

It took Stuart 10 years to write “Shuggie Bain” (there were a lot of drafts going into the bin, he said); he began “Young Mungo” in 2016. While Stuart did not study creative writing and wasn’t trained as a writer, he’s a big rewriter and believes in leaving a lot of time in between drafts. He considers that with “Shuggie Bain” he was learning his craft while with “Young Mungo” he feels he was really exercising his craft.

He’s now turning his hand to a different style of writing: adapting “Shuggie Bain” for a potential television series (nothing’s been signed yet). “I’m enjoying writing drama because it’s teaching me a lot of new skills I hope to bring back to my novel writing,” he said. Skills like economy. “Novelists love colour. And TV’s like ‘I don’t like colour.’ It’s an interesting sort of balance to find.”

And he still goes back to Glasgow, back to the place he grew up, a couple of times a year. It’s a place where his family still lives, where there’s a sense of community, a sense of anonymity. It’s a place that still rings out with the working class voices we hear from so rarely in books. A place middle-class writers can’t write about.

Deborah Dundas is the Star’s Books editor. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @debdundas

Credit belongs to :

Check Also

Maja, Awra reunited in ‘Emojination’

Maja Salvador and Awra Briguela first crossed paths in 2016 when they starred in “FJP's …