Douglas Stuart’s remarkable first novel, Shuggie Bain, won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction last November, and it’s safe to assume the competition wasn’t even close.
Stuart plunges us into a poverty-stricken corner of Glasgow in the late ‘70s and asks us to follow — and worry about — young Shuggie as he grows from age 5 to 15.
Abandoned by his father and left alone with his vain, fragile and alcoholic mother and an older brother, Shuggie must endure an almost impossible life of penury in claustrophobic, dust-covered council housing next to an abandoned coal slag heap.
On top of all that, Shuggie is often told he’s “no’ right,” not “normal.” He certainly doesn’t know he’s gay at such a young age, but he knows he’s different, and different isn’t a good look in a schoolyard full of violent young boys who call Shuggie a “poofter” and then beat him up for good measure.
“Twirl for us, ye wee bender,” they taunt.
“Why do you have to be so annoying? Why can’t you just be normal for once?” Shuggie’s brother asks him. In response, young Shuggie simply says, “I am normal,” even though one senses there’s much more he would say if only he had the right language to say it.
As Shuggie grows, his mother interprets his unusual interest in fashion, dance, and other creative pursuits as a reflection of her own exceptionalism, even though her main concern is not his artistic growth but rather her weekly unemployment payout, which she sends him to collect.
The other impoverished housewives along the street are quick to remind her that owning one mangy and mud-splattered fur coat and a purse full of red lipsticks doesn’t make her any better than them.
The years pass with unrelenting hopelessness, much of it the fault of stunningly unreliable men who either use Shuggie’s mother, torment Shuggie, or both.
This is not the kind of novel that heads directly for a light at the end of the tunnel. Shuggie’s life is a slog, but the book isn’t. Its marvelous, lyrical language holds it aloft. By the time it ends, Shuggie has been through hell for a decade, but in one sense, his life is just beginning.
The fact that Stuart’s novel, his first, has earned favorable comparison not only to Irish memoirist Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) but also to James Joyce, in great part because of his marvelous use of Scottish slang pulled straight from the gutter, is amazing.
Now a New York-based fashion designer, Stuart has acknowledged that Shuggie Bain is at least somewhat autobiographical. As such, all one can do is admire his will to survive and congratulate him on mining his trauma to create pure literary magic.