The same, but different. Most writers write the same book again and again. (I do that too). Publishers like that. It’s an easy sell, especially if your debut novel won the Booker Prize. Different characters, different haircuts, the same predicaments, with much the same outcomes. Write what you know. Young Mungo (Hamilton-Buchanan) is Shuggie Bain.
A rundown housing estate in the Dennistoun, East End of Glasgow (of course) after Thatcher destroyed the mining community, helped shut down many of the shipyards and what she thought of as lame-duck industries that made things. The workshop of the world has moved to China. Mr Campbell batters his wife after Celtic unexpectedly beat Rangers 2—1 and end their 45 game unbeaten run. John Collins and Andy Payton scored. Mark Hateley got a goal back near the end. The game took place in the 92/93 season. A meaningless fixture, but not for Mrs Campbell. She’s a good neighbour. (‘Her ankles were chalky blue from bad circulation.’) She looks out for Young Mungo and his sister, Jodie, but not their eldest brother, Ha-Ha, who’s gone feral at eighteen, and has already fathered a child with a fifteen-year-old girl. His mother was also pregnant at fifteen with him
Nobody looks after Ha-Ha, but he’s determined to make a man of Mungo. He’s too soft, too girly, and it’s bad for his reputation.
The cautionary tales lives at the bottom of the close. Poor-Wee-Chickie can only walk his dog early morning when the kids aren’t hanging about ‘the Paki shop’ to harass him for walking funny, talking funny, for being a wee poof. He’s seven or eight bolts on his door, but follows the world through his net curtains.
Young Mungo is fifteen going on sixteen. His sister Jodie is a year older than him, and mother’s Mungo. Somebody’s got to do it. Hers is a secondary storyline. The narrative switches to her point of view. Mr Gillespie, the Modern Studies teacher, is grooming and fucking her over and has been since she’s been fifteen. (Like mother like daughter, but she doesn’t like sex with the paedophile, she endures it.) But he’s promised her great things. He’s promised to get her into Glasgow Uni and out of the East End and into the West End of Glasgow where English people live.
Murdo joked with James Jamieson that he could rent his doo hut out for £45 a week to a single mother with three wains. James lives across the back from Murdo, but they’re worlds apart. It’s not so much what light through yonder window breaks, but whose arms and legs will be broken, rather than whose heart. Shakespearian rivalry. Gang warfare between the Montague’s and Capulet’s. Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s early musical scripts rivalry rang between Catholics and Jewish gangs in a musical called West End Story set in New York. East End story in Glasgow is the old I’m not a Billy, you’re a Tim. Catholic Bhoyston, an unconquered country linked by the bright lights and a narrow motorway bridge.
James is a Catholic. He lives in Dennistoun. He’s got to provide his own bright lights, but also to keep them muted. His da is a widower who works in the rigs. He might even get him a job on the rigs when he too is sixteen. But he’s worried about him. He’s caught him out when the phone bill came in and it was astronomical—chat lines, which would have been something to be proud of, but GAY chat lines. His da wants him to sort it and fast. James has his own plans to run away. His dreams are Young Mungo’s dreams. They could run away together. But James tells him, he’s too scared. Too tied in with what his ma wants and needs. He’ll be there for her like Poor-wee-Chickie was for his ma. And he’s still there.
Mungo, like Shuggie Bain’s ma, like Douglas Stuart’s ma, was an alcoholic. Any notion of her bringing the wains up was purely accidental. Ha-Ha had that figured before he could reach out of his crib and chib somebody. He’d a keen grip on the Dennistoun reality of life being poor, brutal and then you die. Every man for himself. His ma wasn’t against him, but neither was she for him. She was too busy getting drunk and having fun. With sober interludes when she went to AA meetings. The promise of hope was the promise of failure. Mungo, like Shuggie Bain, tries to protect his ma.
But there’s a sense of jeopardy that was missing from Shuggie Bain. What kind of ma, the police asked Mo-Maw—without getting a reasonable answer—gave her wee boy to two men from an AA meeting, she’s just met and didn’t know, to take him for a fishing trip up North? They might be paedophiles. They were paedophiles not long released from Barlinnie Prison. It’s not far. James and Mungo cycle to it. For big families in the scheme, it provides alternative accommodation. What type of mother is Maureen, Mo-Maw?
The book begins with The May After. Mungo is wearing his cagoule and he’s going fishing with an older man, St Christopher. He’s an alcoholic with a room, one of 300 in the Great Eastern Hotel. Gallowgate was wiry, tattooed and younger, and he keeps the old guy in line. Mungo hadn’t strayed far from the half-dozen tenements he’d be born in. Scotland was a foreign country.
‘The men lumbered in the sunshine. They were weighed down with armfuls of plastic bags, a satchel filled with fishing tackle, and a camping rucksack. Mungo could hear them complain of their thirst. He had known them only an hour, but they had mentioned it several times already. They seemed always to be thirsty. “Ah’m gasping for a guid drink,” said the elder of the two.’
Working-class characters like Mungo talk in the Scottish dialect. This interests me, in particular, because I’m trying to get a feel for it on the page.
Poor-Wee-Chickie, for example, talking about ‘doohuts’ and James’s da. ‘He lives there, doesn’t he? I used to ride the mornin’ bus to work wi his father. He was a miserable big batstard. Didnae have the time of day for anybody. Wouldnae smile at ye if you bought him a new set of teeth.’
There’s a trade-off here (and other parts of the book) with dialect, which is always an approximation. For consistency, ‘wouldnae smile at ye if you bought,’ would read ‘wouldnae smile at ye if ye bought’.
Glasgow humour injects humanity into the characters. Parts don’t need to add up, because in community living they don’t either. Gallowgate, for example, likes talking on the pay phone to random people he’s never met. It’s a useful skill for a sociopath and convicted paedophile. But in Shuggie Bain, his ma also loved to chat on the phone. It was how she kept in touch with the world. Her trait became his trait. Same but different.
I could use terms like this is a more rounded work than Shuggie Bain, but I can’t really be arsed to remember if it is. In both of Stuart’s novels life is breeched and broken. The leading narrator tries, and fails, to sellotape a palatable future together with his mother, but there is no sticking point. Only a continued sense of failure. There’s more a sense of danger to Young Mungo. And that adds to the frisson of the follow-up novel. The truth is I just like it better. Read on.