Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart. Review by Dale Boyer.
Note: This review appeared in a slightly different version in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide.
Winner of the UK’s Booker Prize, and a finalist for the National Book Award in America, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is perhaps the bleakest great novel to appear in a long time. Indeed, it is the bleakest, most shocking, and harrowing account of a childhood I’ve ever read, and this includes anything by Dickens. At the end of 13 pages (and at the age of just 15), Shuggie is already selling himself to other men for money. Barely 30 pages later, he narrates the way his mother tried to set the house around them on fire with him in her arms. And there are still nearly 400 pages to go. Given all this horror, it may be appropriate to ask (and many have) how much is too much. That Shuggie Bain is a literary triumph is a testimony as much to the skill of its author as it is to the human spirit.
The UK version of the cover of Shuggie Bain portrays a child almost literally crucified on a pole against a backdrop of Glasgow public housing units, while the US version shows a child in bed, gazing adoringly at his mother. Both images are extraordinarily apt, summing up the novel quite neatly with its twin themes of adoration of a deeply flawed parent, and the ways in which that devotion is so destructive to the child. Shuggie Bain as a title is a bit misleading, because while Shuggie is the 10- year-old gay narrator of the book, the vast majority of the novel is an indelible portrait of Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, who is an alcoholic. Seen through Shuggie’s innocent and uncomprehending eyes, Agnes is a deeply unhappy woman, very much in the guise of Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, with whom she’sactually compared. Agnes seems determined to live her life like a star, as in this moment when, after the fire she herself has caused, she leaves her parents’ home in an attempt to start a brand new life:
Now, as the taxi pulled out into the main road, Agnes made a show of looking back and waving mournfully through the rear window with a long, heavy blink. She thought it was a cinematic touch, like she was the star of her own matinee.
Sadly, however, while Agnes spends her life mooning for some imagined camera, no one else is watching, and she barely seems to register the fact that the life she’s living is the only one she will ever have.
Fueled by a series of bad choices with men, and perhaps her own unrealistic expectations about life, Agnes slides ever more irrevocably into hopelessness and despair, in the interim, dragging everyone nearby along with her. If Shuggie Bain were a mere catalogue of such horrors, none of this would be bearable and – at times — it almost becomes so. However, Stuart’s skill as a writer (which is considerable) is such that, if he does not succeed in making such a destructive figure as Agnes entirely sympathetic, at least she is understandable. Stuart is absolutely first rate at capturing the inner workings of a host of characters, everyone from Agnes to the naive, effeminate Shuggie, even her no-account, wife-beating husband, Shug Sr. He is also a master at establishing characters and scene through dialogue, as in this moment when Agnes meets her new neighbors in the down-and-out section of the Glasgow housing project where they now live:
Agnes lifted the vodka mug again and stared down into the faint clouds. The tea must have been very milky. Bridie topped it up to the brim with a smile. “Aye, ah took ye for a drinker.” She drew on her fag. “Aye, the minute ah saw ye, ah spotted it. They thought you were the big I Am, all done up in sequins, like some big dolly bird from the city. But ah could see through it. Ah could see the sadness, and ah knew you had to be a big drinker.” The women nodded and cawed “Aye,” like a murder of crows.
Trying to cope with life in such environs, and in the bleakest days of Thatcher-era Glasgow, is the young Shuggie. Gay, effeminate, and bullied by everyone for it except his protective older brother, who does everything within his limited means to save him, Shuggie is witness to his mother’s inevitable decline, and is saddled with the additional burden of trying to forge a gay identity in this completely hostile environment. It is Shuggie who watches nightly as Agnes pulls can after can of Special Brew from its “plastic noose” (an especially apt metaphor, just one of many Stuart employs); he who endures the shocking bluntness and coarseness of their daily lives and interactions with one another in down-and-out Glasgow. This is a world in which no doorway, elevator, or square of carpet is seemingly free from the taint of piss, in which every human interaction is reduced to its coarsest element, and in which no one seems capable of ever breaking free from the cycle of poverty. As one character puts it, “If you hope...Ye also mope.”
Yet, in the end, the book is about Shuggie, and the fact that he survives – indeed, triumphs over – all this. The author acknowledges in an afterword that the book is at least partly autobiographical, and Shuggie Bain is a testimony to how great art can be made in the face of such suffering. Bleak and gritty it may be, but it is also a deeply human and unforgettable work of art.