In 1980s Glasgow, a World of Pain Made Bearable by Love
By Douglas Stuart
The body — especially the body in pain — blazes on the pages of “Shuggie Bain.” Hair is ripped from heads, people are dragged up the stairs and down the street, faces and groins are bloodied and bruised, and all with a nearly quotidian inevitability. The most common form of suffering in this novel is that which characters inflict on themselves: poisoning themselves with drink, putting their heads in the oven, setting the bedroom on fire, egging on aggressors, rebuffing love, refusing help.
Even the nonviolent bits fairly pulsate with descriptions of body parts and fluids: mustaches coated with cream or “congealing pink sauce,” thighs gone “tartan blue” with cold, children spitting through the letter slot on a front door, “big long gobbets of sugary phlegm that stuck on the metal flap and slid slowly down the inside of the wood.”
This is the world of Shuggie Bain, a little boy growing up in Glasgow in the 1980s. And this is the world of Agnes Bain, his glamorous, calamitous mother, drinking herself ever so slowly to death. The wonder is how crazily, improbably alive it all is: this world of slag heaps and council houses, of unemployed miners and women stuck at home with their “weans,” forced to supplement weekly benefit payments by prying open the electric meter and reclaiming the coins therein. Douglas Stuart writes in a sense-drenched Glaswegian prose so studded with slang (“papped,” “boak,” “laldy,” “smirr”) and phonetically rendered dialogue (“Wit are the pair of ye stauning there all glaikit fur?”) that the language itself adds up to another layer of physicality, a rhythmic reel coursing through the reader’s blood.
At the center of all this, little Shuggie is just beginning to perceive, and trying to puzzle out why, nearly everyone he meets considers him “no right.” He is different from other boys. There’s a gorgeous scene early on where 5-year-old Shuggie is playing with dolls. Only they’re not dolls, they’re cans of Tennent’s beer that have “half-naked beauties photographed on the side.” He strokes “their tinny hair” and makes them “talk to each other in imagined conversations.” When his father catches him at it he’s proud, misinterpreting the little boy’s play for precocious lust, but his mother looks on sadly, “knowing what was really going on.”
Soon enough, Shuggie’s father abandons his wife and children, Agnes sinks deeper into the drink, Shuggie’s older siblings find ways to escape, and Shuggie is left alone to absorb his own pain and assuage his mother’s. We follow them, the “wee poofter” and his “hoor” of a mammy, through roughly a decade of heartbreak and squalor, a more or less Jobian arc of things going from bad to worse to excruciating, and the book would be just about unbearable were it not for the author’s astonishing capacity for love.
He’s lovely, Douglas Stuart, fierce and loving and lovely. He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster — only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains. The book is long, more than 400 pages, but its length seems crucial to its overall effect. Like Agnes, we’re all doomed to our patterns. How often we repeat the same disastrous mistakes, make the same wrong turn again and again. And yet, like Shuggie, how often we rise, against all odds, to stumble forward once more. The book leaves us gutted and marveling: Life may be short, but it takes forever.