The history of world literature is filled with second novels that pale in comparison to their author’s stellar freshman achievement. How many debuts have had the spectacular success of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain? More than 500,000 copies sold and the 2020 Booker Prize is not a bad way to start a literary career.
Readers will be happy to learn that Stuart’s follow-up, Young Mungo, is even stronger than his first book. This tale of two gay Glasgow teenagers caught amid various forms of prejudice in the early 1990s is a marvelous feat of storytelling, a mix of tender emotion and grisly violence that finds humanity in even the most fraught circumstances.
You know you’re in for a tough upbringing when your alcoholic mother names you after a patron saint known for having “started a fire from nothing, or . . . something,” as 15-year-old Mungo explains. But Mungo has bigger problems than his name, which Stuart describes in heartbreaking detail. Mungo’s alcoholic mother, 34-year-old Mo-Maw, often disappears on wild drinking sprees. When under the influence, she’s a harsher version of herself, transforming into a “heartless, shambling scarecrow” that Mungo, his brother Hamish and sister Jodie have nicknamed “Tattie-bogle.”
Hamish is a gang leader who leads fights against working-class Catholic youths, and he forces Mungo to join the Protestant cause and take to the streets with him. “I need to sort you out,” Hamish tells him. But Mungo doesn’t need sorting out. He needs more time with James Jamieson, a Catholic boy with whom he has fallen in love and who tends to birds in his beloved dovecote.
Scenes between Mungo and James are the most beautiful in the book. They stand in contrast to the moments that are among the most brutal: To toughen up Mungo, Mo-Maw sends him on a fishing trip with two thugs of questionable repute. That trip, like so much else in the book, doesn’t go the way Mungo, or his mother, ever anticipated.
Some plot elements in Young Mungo may disturb, but all are sensitively rendered, and the simplicity of Stuart’s writing makes them all the more powerful. One of the myths of St. Mungo is that he once brought a dead robin back to life. No such restoration occurs in young Mungo’s hardscrabble life, but as Stuart shows, hope often lies where you least expect it.