“He was Mo-Maw’s youngest son, but was also her confidant, her lady’s maid, and errand boy. He was her one flattering mirror, and her teenage diary, her electric blanket, her doormat. He was her best pal, the dog she hardly walked, and her greatest romance.”
Douglas Stuart’s follow-up to the Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain was a bit of a letdown. Young Mungo (Grove Press 2022) is beautifully and tragically written, and it certainly cements Stuart as a talented voice, but Mungo is just another version of Shuggie, and I wanted to see something different. When I read the initial blurbs about the love story between a young man named for a Saint known for restoring life to a bird and the young man who keeps doves, I was sold. And while there are some sweetly nuanced firsts between these two, it doesn’t carry the novel. The novel is carried, much like Shuggie, on a booze-soaked bruise that just keeps spreading. It’s harsh and violent; the sweet and light so painfully limited.
When Mungo’s brother, Hamish, catches him in a compromising position with James, he chooses violence against his brother and especially against his brother’s young love. Hamish tells their mother and sister what he’d witnessed. Their mother, booze-addled and likely one of the worst fictional maternal figures in recent memories, allows two strange men from AA to take Mungo on a camping trip to make him a man. Both men are pedophiles with rap sheets, and the nightmare of a “camping” trip is spread out throughout the novel, the harsh rapes a stark contrast to the depictions of young exploratory love between him and James.
Hamish is a gang-leader and drug dealer who will always choose violence and family before anything else. Jodie, the sister, is one of Mungo’s closest confidants, but she is eyeing her escape. While her affair with the teacher and subsequent pregnancy (and abortion) were an interesting additions to the family dynamics, the fact she was given several POV chapters is jarring. Perhaps if Hamish and James had sections, it would have fit a bit better.
Much of the pages seem pulled from Shuggie’s cutting room floor, and I couldn’t shake that feeling. Even sweet James and his doves weren’t enough to dislodge the memory of Shuggie and his own drunk mother.
Based on reviews, this is a very unpopular opinion. But I couldn’t love this one. I just couldn’t.