Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain (2020), Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize–winning first novel, was such a stunning amalgam of tenderness and brutality that a reader braces for a letdown from a follow-up appearing as quickly as Young Mungo now does.

Some broad repetitions do, for a while, threaten the possibility of a fresh impact from this second book, which Stuart admits was written “in between” drafts of the first.

Life in the sandstone tenements and government high-rises of post-industrial Glasgow is no less miserable in Young Mungo’s 1990s than it was in Shuggie Bain’s 80s. It’s a jobless world, wallpapered with disconnect notices, sodden with drink and desperate sex. The sectarian fisticuffs between Catholics and Protestants are as nasty and pointless as ever: “Honestly, ah don’t really know,” muses the nastiest warrior. “But it’s fuckin’ good fun.”

Mungo Hamilton, a Protestant barely into his teens, is kindhearted, self-suppressingly gay, and afflicted with a nervous facial tic. What we learn of his essence—“Everything about this boy was about his mother”—was true of Shuggie Bain as well, though Mo-Maw, the alcoholic mother whom Mungo defends and forgives, is a “mousy, wan” version of the unforgettably beautiful and outrageous Agnes Bain.

Again like Shuggie, Mungo has a sister whose disciplined gumption may eventually let her escape the grimness now inherited by each generation. The older brother in this new novel, Hamish, is exponentially more violent than the one in Shuggie Bain.

But if at first many of the elements—heightened here, toned-down there—seem gruesomely familiar, Young Mungo gradually becomes a catastrophic world of its own, amplifying the achievement of Stuart’s spectacular debut.

Structurally, this second novel is more ambitious than the first. Stuart runs two alternating narrative lines that must finally converge.

Life in the sandstone tenements and government high-rises of post-industrial Glasgow is no less miserable in Young Mungo’s 1990s than it was in Shuggie Bain’s 80s.

The first leads Mungo into the woods on a family-encouraged camping trip with two older men ready to “make a man” out of the effeminate boy. Both of these role models are in fact ex-cons eager to take sexual turns with Mungo in the tent. Stuart, as always, delivers monstrousness with a chillingly casual touch. As “Gallowgate,” one of Mungo’s tormenters, tells him: “We’re doing this out of the kindness of our hearts, taking a wee waif to gawk at the heathery hillside. So don’t be ungrateful. Don’t be so fuckin’ stingy wi’ the favours next time.”

How this lunatic, supposedly improving weekend got to be launched will be explained by the second, flashbacking story of all that’s occurred in the preceding four months. Those chapters feature the mayhem of Mungo’s family life, along with a wonderful, dangerous idyll, Mungo’s adolescent romance with James Jamieson, a Catholic boy who raises pigeons above the council flat where he lives by himself much of the time. (James’s tough, widowed father works on the North Sea oil rigs.)

The boys’ sexual attraction, deflected at first into roughhousing, is rendered with a fine, low-key lyricism: the first time James lifts his arm from Mungo’s shoulders “it was as though a thick blanket had been pulled away on a February morning.” Their love seems to occur on a different planet from the hooligan one where it can get each of them killed.

Across the 800 pages of his two novels, Stuart has been inking a great Hogarthian print, a postmodern Scottish Gin Lane. He can be sardonically funny—“Hamish was going through the kitchen cupboards. He was looking for something sugary to eat, and for something electrical to pawn”—but he always gets back to scaring the hell out of you and breaking your heart. After Mungo’s sister persuades him to punch her repeatedly in the stomach, in an attempt to abort a pregnancy caused by her social-studies teacher, she’s left more guilt-ridden than battered: “She had asked for violence out of a gentle soul and it made her feel like she had trampled a patch of fresh snow.”

Scottish diction—“weans” for children; “boak” for vomit; “cannae” for “can’t”—is dappled onto the novel with a vivid sparingness, enough to enhance the unique geography, but not the constant flood of localisms that made Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), set in Edinburgh, a sometimes impenetrable text.

Stuart has definite views of what political villainy he believes caused Glasgow’s troubles, but the most exceptional feature of Young Mungo and Shuggie Bain may be the way the books avoid any feeling of autofictional self-pity, no matter that Stuart himself sprang from their milieu. What the author calls the “poor-me’s,” exhibited by both Agnes and Mo-Maw, is to his mind just one more affliction, like alcoholism or poverty and prejudice; Stuart’s landscape is hard and noisy enough without adding anyone’s whining to the din.

There is right now no novelist writing more powerfully than Douglas Stuart. A strong measure of his success lies in how the reader, while appreciating the artistry of each harrowing scene, continually thinks: Please let it end.

Thomas Mallon’s 11th novel, Up With the Sun, will be published by Knopf next winter