Shuggie Pain is Shattering and Brilliant

Shuggie Bain (2020)

By Douglas Stuart

Grove Press, 448 pages.





I thought Bobby March Will Live Forever was grim. Then I read Shuggie Bain. Richard Russo said, “Shuggie Bain will knock you sideways,” and he wasn’t wrong. Douglas Stuart won the 2020 Man Booker Prize, a remarkable achievement for a debut novel, but as it should be for an extraordinary novel.


In some ways, it could be considered a differently authored sequel to Alan Parks’ Bobby March. Both are set in Glasgow, but 20 years apart. Shuggie Bain takes us into the 1980s as Thatcherism hollowed out the Clyde Valley by eliminating jobs in the shipyards and mines. Shuggie—a nickname for Hugh—is born into an Irish-Scottish working-class family already on the skids. Both Shug (Shuggie’s father) and Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, had previous partners. Dissolving a union among Roman Catholics was fraught with extra trauma, given the church’s stance against birth control. Shug walked out on four bairns (children) and Shuggie’s older siblings, Catherine and “Leek” (Alexander) were sired by Agnes’ ex-husband, Brendan McGowan.


Shug drives a cab and combines business with backseat liaisons, even though everyone agrees that Agnes looks like young Elizabeth Taylor. Shug, Agnes, and her three children live in Sighthill, a Glasgow complex of down-market high-rise apartment blocks, with Agnes’ parents. Agnes splurges on clothing and cosmetics, but theirs is a hand-to-mouth existence in which its cheaper to have one’s teeth pulled and wear dentures than to see a dentist on a regular basis. Catherine escapes through marriage to a cousin and moves to South Africa, but Leek, who draws expertly, harbors no illusions he can afford art college. As the youngest, Shuggie is a mama’s boy whose effeminate ways make him the target of bullies old and young. Agnes dreams of living in a proper home with a yard and neighbors.


Be careful what you ask for. One day, Shug loads Agnes, Leek, and Shuggie into his cab and drives them to their new home in the Pithead section in the northeast outskirts of Glasgow. Then he drives away, as he has taken up with another woman who has six kids. As the name suggests, Pithead was once a thriving colliery. Not any longer. The mines are closed, most of the men are idle, and the landscape is marked by dirt streets, slag heaps, peatbogs, and abandoned buildings into which youths risk beatings from guards as they strip wire from cables to sell. Agnes tries hard to make a go of things, but she gets off on the wrong foot because her neighbors think she’s stuck-up. (She is!) Bridie Donnelly sizes her up as a problem drinker and she’s only wrong by being premature.


Shuggie Bain becomes a tale of alcoholism, cigarettes, grease, grit, and battles over turf no one really wants in the first place. As children of alcoholics know, a drinker will do whatever they must to get booze. You can imagine the lengths to which an attractive woman like Agnes might go, but you’ll come up short. You might also speculate what it’s like for a delicate child such as Shuggie, the book’s tragic hero. Again, you’ll be off the mark. Shuggie remains loyal to his mum and that might not be the best thing either. His only real friend is Leanne Kelly, who also has an alcoholic mother, but she’s not exactly a lean-on-me pal.


Shuggie Bain takes us through to 1992, when Shuggie is 17, and starting to figure some things out, but Stuart doesn’t tie things up in neat bows. He also leaves hanging the question of ethnicity. We infer that being of Irish stock matters, but to what degree? Despite close proximity and historical patterns of migration, today less than one percent of Scots claim an Irish background. Religion is similarly configured. Highlanders were once Catholic, but that’s the faith of choice for just 16 percent of present-day Scots. How do we explain the plight of the Bains? Ethnic discrimination? Religious bigotry? Substance abuse? Poverty? Stuart leaves such questions open for reader interpretation. The only thing we know for certain is that it was very difficult for women in the 1980s.


Shuggie Bain is a shattering novel. It’s also provocative, brilliant, and will indeed knock you sideways. Douglas Stuart’s Glasgow of the 1980s is where dreams died hard and hope struggled to blossom.


Rob Weir


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