Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart critic – courage and nostalgia in Glasgow | fiction


DOuglas Stuart’s second novel appears on the heels of 2020’s Shuggie Bain, a Booker Prize winner with strong claims to instant classic status, and is similar in many ways. Mungo Hamilton, like Shuggie, was born in the late 1970s and grew up in a crabby but weirdly magical tenement house in Glasgow, with an older sister (Jodie), an older brother (Hamish) and an erratic “alkahawlick” mother. for to whom he is devoted (Mo-Maw). Again Stuart proves himself a wonderfully gifted writer, a virtuoso descriptor with a more or less endless supply of tender detail and elegant phrasing. But Young Mungo, while immersive and rarely boring, comes across as a chaotic cousin to its direct-fire predecessor and offers an altogether bumpier experience.

The key event is Mungo’s meeting during winter vacation with James Jamieson, a somewhat older Catholic boy who guards a dovecote near the housing estate grounds where they live. Mungo and James fall in love and plan to escape as soon as Mungo turns 16, but their bond is doubly cursed. Mungo cannot say what would be considered the worst betrayal in the eyes of his fearsome brother Hamish – whether James is a man or whether he is “Fenian”.

The backdrop is 1993, with sections titled “The May After” and “The January Before”. The first trajectory lasts a few days, during which Mungo takes a trip to the shores of Loch Lomond with a pair of men, even more disreputable than they appear at first glance, known to Mo-Maw for his casual company of AAs. But the alternate timeline moves quickly, so Mungo’s encounter with Jamie takes place in the second chapter of the section titled “The January Before.”

Stuart is a lucid storyteller, moving easily between tales, but the novel is characterized by exaggeration and we are never trusted to get the point across. Almost every paragraph seems to contain redundancy – a bit more showmanship, or the rephrasing almost synonymous with well-established conceit. At one point, when Mungo is waiting for the “proverbial penny to drop” in a conversation with Hamish, there is a 118-word description of a “Mo-Maw’s favorite bingo” slot machine that creates a coin similar – albeit literal – induced sense of anticipation.

Although Stuart is capable of economic effects, he chooses to remind the reader of the central dynamics and traits: “She wondered what awaited her little brother.” “Something in him couldn’t bear to be loved.” “So what was it about Catholics that made them so different?” As recently as page 280, there is a description of Mungo’s relationship with Mo-Maw as a list of 12 items: confidant, maid, errand boy, flattering mirror, diary. teenager, electric blanket, doormat, best friend and so on. to. Barely 10 pages from the end, Mungo meets a stranger who tells him about his “artist” son. He even wonders why he hears “about this particular son out of the four sons he said he had”. The obvious conclusion is that the man has a hunch about Mungo’s sexuality, but the scene occurs long after his innuendos have been fully established. The Hamiltons’ neighbors are also popping up to share the burden. The local bachelor Poor-Wee-Chickie recalls a scenario almost identical to that between Mungo and Jamie: “I just didn’t have the guts.”

In third-person novels, many rely on formulations that present thought and speech without quotation marks. But again and again, Stuart tries to smuggle in additional ideas or information. Mo-Maw, who at one point calls his daughter a “talking bicyclopedia”, tells Mungo that “the junkyard man and his wife were good people, phlegmatic but harmless”. Jodie hands Mungo an Ellsworth Kelly catalog and he flips through, and seems to note the “extremely controlled line drawings”, the rectangles which “collided together to create pattern and depth of tone from their layered repetition”.

A chapter in which Jodie and Mungo interrupt an act of domestic violence in the downstairs apartment is symptomatic of Stuart’s slightly scattered approach. He moves from one perspective to another, putting us in the head of the abused woman (“Even as he beat her, she worried about her good reputation”) then of Mungo (“He wanted to put his fingers in his ears”) before continuing in a neutral report from the Old Firm Derby: “Collins’ first-half goal was followed by another from Payton, putting Celtic firmly in the lead. Rangers brought in their golden boy, McCoist, but struggled to get back into the game. Such details are relevant because, we are told from a seemingly omniscient point of view, the abusive husband was angered by the defeat of the Rangers. But then that turns out not to be the case, and so the match is irrelevant; the point of the scene is really to plant another thematic pole. The wife excuses her husband’s appalling behavior because she loves him – much like the Hamilton siblings with Mo-Maw (“If anyone should understand…then it’s you two”).

Yet despite multiple frustrations, and even at its most explicit and exaggerated, Young Mungo is the work of a true novelist. The bizarre technique cannot crowd out the energy of Stuart’s characters or the organic force of his bountiful world. Sometimes he evokes Dostoyevsky, in whom the powerful rubs shoulders with the gallop. Mungo’s predicament is piercing, and as the story draws to a close, a spectral beauty prevails.

Young Mungo is published by Picador (£16.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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