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    Saturday, August 20, 2022

    'Young Mungo' seals it: Douglas Stuart is a genius

    Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

    Young Mungo

    By Douglas Stuart

    Grove. 390 pp. $27

    - - -

    Fifteen-year-old Mungo shows the kind of vulnerability that makes people want to cradle him — or crush him. He's the tender Scottish hero of Douglas Stuart's moving new novel, "Young Mungo." It's a tale of romantic and sexual awakening punctuated by horrific violence. Amid all its suffering, Mungo's story makes two things strikingly clear: 1) Being named after the patron saint of Glasgow offers no protection, and 2) Stuart writes like an angel.

    Few novelists have ever ascended so quickly, but the suddenness of Stuart's success belies years of struggle. His debut novel, "Shuggie Bain," was rejected by dozens of publishers before Grove Atlantic finally recognized the manuscript's genius. It went on to win the Booker Prize in 2020, propelling the Scottish American writer to worldwide fame.

    Now, just two years later, Stuart is back with another masterful family drama set in the economic ruin of Glasgow after Margaret Thatcher's devastating reign. This is a hopeless realm of demolished industries, substance abuse and generational poverty. As in "Shuggie Bain," the protagonist is a boy, the youngest of three siblings being raised by an alcoholic mother. But if Stuart has not departed much from the scaffolding of his debut novel, he has managed to produce a story with a very different shape and pace.

    Set in the early 1990s, "Young Mungo" alternates between two tracks about five months apart. In the earlier sections, we're introduced to the notorious Hamilton family. Hamish, Mungo's eldest sibling, is a Protestant gang leader who compensates for his diminished height with excess brutality. Stuart choreographs the young thugs' street brawls with all their surging adrenaline and tactical ingenuity. Hamish hates police, Catholics and "poofters," but the only thing he's been able to teach Mungo is that "it was dazzling, how something marvelous could be destroyed so quickly and so completely."

    Jodie, the lone daughter, has assumed all the domestic responsibilities neglected by their selfish mother, who vanishes for days at a time to pursue another man or bottle. Mo-Maw, as they call her, is like some pickled nightmare from the mind of Tennessee Williams — 80 proof selfishness heavily flavored with vanity and sentimentality.

    But Mungo loves Mo-Maw unconditionally; it's his nature, his tragic flaw. "Try and remember the good bits, eh?" he says during one of her unannounced disappearances. "She's not all bad."

    "Honestly," a neighbor sighs, "you're all kindness and no common sense."

    The raw poetry of Stuart's prose is perfect to catch the open spirit of this handsome boy, with his strange facial tics. "Mungo had all this love to give," Stuart writes, "and it lay about him like ripened fruit and nobody bothered to gather it up." Denied the attachment he craves, he's grown hypersensitive to the static electricity of rage constantly building up and discharging in their dingy apartment. That role has kept him vacillating on the threshold of adulthood, though he's only a year younger than his sister. "His unruly mop of hair made women want to mother him," Stuart writes. "But that sweetness unsettled other boys."

    The most charming chapters of the novel recount Mungo's budding romance with a kind teenager named James who raises racing pigeons. He's Catholic, but that's hardly the greatest mark against him. Mungo and James have no words — at least no positive words — for what they are or what they're feeling, but with hesitant delight, they try to figure out how to express their affection. Lying in the grass with James watching the clouds roll by one afternoon, Mungo notes that "waves of loveliness ebbed over him followed by waves of shame. They came like Jodie alternating the hot and cold taps and trying to balance a bath with him already in it."

    The way Stuart carves out this oasis amid a rising tide of homophobia infuses these scenes with almost unbearable poignancy. But there's no mistaking the dangers Mungo and James face. In the streets of Glasgow, gay men — or men suspected of being gay — are routinely beaten for sport by bullies like Hamish. The fastidious bachelor who lives above the Hamiltons is regarded with open disgust. Mungo can hear his mother's alarm when she frets about how to make a man out of him — a phrase repeated so often that it seems to sprout up around Mungo like bars on a cage.

    In fact, the whole novel turns on that panic about Mungo's supposedly imperiled masculinity. In alternate chapters, we follow the young man on a fishing trip over a holiday weekend. Growing up so poor that he's never left the city, Mungo is nervously excited about seeing a forest, a loch, a fish! His mother has entrusted him to the care of two men from her AA meeting. Old St. Christopher and his fit young buddy seem, at first, like harmless drunks, Scottish versions of the King and the Duke drifting down the Mississippi with Huck Finn.

    But these chapters are soaked with menace. Stuart quickly proves himself an extraordinarily effective thriller writer. He's capable of pulling the strings of suspense excruciatingly tight while still sensitively exploring the confused mind of this gentle adolescent trying to make sense of his sexuality.

    The result is a novel that moves toward two crises simultaneously: whatever happened with James in Glasgow and whatever might happen to Mungo in the Scottish wilds. The one is a foregone calamity we can only intuit; the other an approaching horror we can only dread. But even as Stuart draws these timelines together like a pair of scissors, he creates a little space for Mungo's future, a little mercy for this buoyant young man.

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