Please note that I will not include any spoilers in this review but I will discuss elements of the structure and plot of Young Mungo.
Shuggie Bain, the debut novel that won Douglas Stuart a Booker Prize, casts a long shadow over Stuart’s second novel, Young Mungo, although both ultimately succeed in their own right. For those looking to compare the two novels, it doesn’t help that both center on a tender-hearted young gay boy in 1980s/1990s Glasgow who desperately cares for an alcoholic mother who conspicuously isn’t caring for him. Or that the fact that Mungo is so eager to keep his mother happy causes friction with his siblings, who are more capable of seeing their mother for who she is.
Luckily, the similarities end there and Young Mungo becomes a different take on a similar scenario. The story takes place in two timelines. In the first, we meet a bruised Mungo recovering from mysterious injuries as he is sent on a fishing trip to become more of a man with two men his mother met in AA. The fact that she doesn’t even know these men she’s entrusted her young son to matters less to her than the idea that she makes a show of getting him a “proper” manly education, one that Mungo has been missing since he lacks a father. Innocent Mungo is woefully unprepared for this venture, from his attire (gym shorts that will do nothing against the cold weather) to what he packs (a board game and a sketchbook).
The second storyline flashes back to a few months earlier to show the reader how Mungo came to be sent away to become a man. In it, we find Mungo’s mother drifting in and out of his life (mostly out), leaving him to the care of his disapproving sister, Jodie. Jodie is only a year older than Mungo but has been forced into a caretaker role by circumstances–a role she has grown to resent over time. Their big brother Hamish has moved into another apartment to live with his underage girlfriend and their baby daughter–overseen by the girlfriend’s disapproving mother. Hamish’s response to his life circumstances and his poor prospects to do better was to become a gang leader, employing a ragtag group of neighborhood boys to wage war against the Catholics in the area. Mungo avoids his brother as much as possible, but Hamish’s powerful gravitational orbit (and tendency toward violence) keeps pulling him closer. The one bright spot in Mungo’s life is James, a lonely Catholic boy who takes care of pigeons. Their friendship is forbidden because of their religion, and things only get worse when romance begins to bloom between the two.
In the second storyline, Young Mungo builds off of Shuggie Bain in effective ways–staying in the same ballpark but expanding out to explore new (if similar) dynamics. Economic displacement (largely thanks to Thatcher-era politics) looms large, as does the role of women in a violent male-dominated society. As in Shuggie, Stuart’s palpable compassion for every one of his characters means that you understand them even if you don’t like them or what they do. In lesser hands, Hamish would be a caricature of brute, gang violence. To some degree, he is here as well, but Stuart makes sure that you see the hurt and disappointment motivating that violence.
It’s this second storyline where Young Mungo shines, which makes it a pity that Stuart appears to have counted on the first storyline to hammer in most of his themes. And I do mean hammer. The first storyline is brutal, unrelenting, and at times difficult to read (due to subject matter, not poor writing). Subtlety would be impossible because of what happens in this storyline and the intensity doesn’t quite match the quiet desperation of the other. I felt jarred and unmoored–which is probably the point, but again, I’m not convinced the two storylines play well together.
In fact, I can’t help but think that Young Mungo is a much better book without the first storyline. If you edited it out completely, you really wouldn’t lose much. The second storyline has all the points Stuart wanted to make about the time, the setting, how dangerous it was to be young and gay–and how revolutionary living an honest, authentic life was. All you would need are minor edits to the conclusion and it would work just fine–better even, because you could also offer proper conclusions to storylines that get left a bit hanging as it is, like the one with Poor Wee Chickie, a gay man who lives a solitary life being bullied by neighborhood boys and who has a major impact on Mungo. The more I think about it, the more I think Young Mungo becomes, even more, the book Stuart wanted to write if he would only remove the first storyline from it completely.
There’s another flaw with the two storylines in that the first relies on Mungo still possessing a sort of childish innocence. It depends on his youthful naivete–this is, after all, a very young boy who wore gym shorts to a camping trip and innocently packed a board game and a sketchbook. But by the time you reach the end of the book I genuinely question that depiction of Mungo. The second storyline takes place months earlier, and I wouldn’t necessarily call the Mungo who emerges from the events of that storyline childish. He’s been through too much to be the Mungo we are introduced to on the first page. It’s a structural flaw that isn’t glaringly obvious but is still a problem.
You can see the difference between the two sides of Young Mungo at play in the differences between the UK and US designs for the dustjacket. It’s not uncommon for a book to have a different cover in different countries and Young Mungo is no exception here except for the fact that both covers are visually quite stunning. Usually, one is significantly better than the other. Interestingly, now that I’ve read the book I see that the different covers reflect the different storylines. The American cover ties to the first storyline where Mungo goes camping, featuring a young boy with the lower half of his face submerged underwater. It’s beautiful, sad, and somehow disquieting since the boy can’t breathe. Is he holding still and enjoying some peace? Is he submerging? Hiding? Seeking refuge where he cannot survive? Or is he rising to the world above? His nose is so close to the surface of the water, after all. Given the book we get with Young Mungo, I think this is the most appropriate cover.
The UK version instead features a famous photograph of two young men kissing in a night club. Context into the photo and why it was chosen is key here, but even without that you can see that it’s audacious and a wee bit provocative. “Are you offended?” it seems to ask. If you are offended, why? The very question reveals how revolutionary an image of two men kissing still is in society. It reveals that gay love is inherently an act of rebellion. This is what Young Mungo should be, and what the first storyline dulls by being so… well, so much. I can’t talk about it without spoiling the book for anyone who wants to read it, so let’s leave it at that.
In the end, I liked Young Mungo and I continue to adore Douglas Stuart. Every interview I see of him is fascinating, and I am truly glad he has found so much success as a writer. His voice is an important one. I confess I do hope that he begins to move a bit further away from the Shuggie Bain template in the future, but Young Mungo proves that he has enough to say and do in this universe that he could get at least one or two more books out of it if he’s careful. I would love to see him write a contemporary story set in Glasgow, for one thing. Maybe he will.
But as much as I appreciate what Stuart is doing with Young Mungo, it won’t have the same impact on me that Shuggie Bain did. The great shame of it is that I’ll always wonder if it could have if that first storyline had been excised.