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



Oh Canada: Andy Shauf, The Glorious Sons, Julian Taylor, Sultans of String


The US/Canadian border is closed at present, but music doesn’t care about boundaries. Here are four Canadian artists to discover.


Andy Shauf
is from Saskatchewan, but you can be forgiven for wondering if he might be a lost love child of Nick Drake. Their repertoires differ, but the patter, tonation, and trippy qualities of Shauf’s voice echo those of Drake. Shauf’s newest CD is titled Neon Skyline. It has been labeled “baroque pop,” whatever that might be. The entirety can be heard on YouTube, so maybe you can figure it out. To my ear, Shauf’s baroque pop is folk as churned through the blender with heavy doses of Drake and a soupçon of Paul Simon. Try the Neon Skyline, “Where Are You Judy,” and "Changer." Look for acoustic versions, which have fewer distractions than the studio material.   


The Glorious Sons
are from Kingston, Ontario, though a quick listen to songs like “Come Down” and the power ballad “La Cosa Nostra” sounds like Southern fried rock n’ roll. They have a new record titled A War on Everything. The title track isn’t about global conflict. It’s another power ballad, this one a love song and a plea to cut all ties,  run away, and start anew. Glorious Sons are a six-piece band anchored by the muscular voice of Brett Emmons, with his brother Jay on some of the blistering electric leads you’ll hear. Glorious Sons won’t knock you over with poetic lyrics, but they are a nice balance of heavy and light. 


Julian Taylor
lives in Toronto and beyond that, he’s hard to pin down. He is of West Indian and Mohawk descent and musically, he dabbles in rock, jazz, folk, funk, blues, and even a bit of classical. He once fronted the rock band Staggered Crossing, but he has toured as a solo artist or with a new band since Staggered Crossing’s demise in 2017. His latest release, The Ridge, explores some of his interests. Good luck finding a label for “Love Enough.” It has echoes of Tex-Mex and Elvis, with some big rolling prairie acoustic bursting through. Many of his songs are quite wordy, but appropriately so for story songs. As a kid, Taylor spent a lot of time on his grandparents’ farm in British Columbia and “The Ridge” is a memory piece about those days. Taylor sings it with a deep, smooth voice that oozes fondness and a small touch of yearning. “Human Race” is a gentle look at a friend’s struggle with mental illness. A pedal steel guitar gives it a country feel, but it’s basically a heartfelt folk song with a universal message: The human race/We all feel out of place…. Taylor suggests that being fully human boils down to how we handle the aforementioned reality. Once again, his voice is buttery smooth, except when he belts out the outro. “Over the Moon” sounds as if could have been plucked from James Keelaghan’s repertoire. Many of Taylor’s songs are hummable and “Ballad of a Young Troubadour,” which sounds as if it’s autobiographical, certainly falls into that category. The Ridge is an album from which you could pluck any song and revel in it.


Sultans of String have been nominated for three Juno Awards in Canada (think Grammy Awards) and the Toronto-based quintet anchored by the voice and lead fiddle of Chris McKhool has quite a following up north and in the United States. You name it and SoS play it: bluegrass, gypsy jazz, Caribbean, flamenco, Celtic, swing, Cuban, Middle Eastern, South Asian…. The one constant is that they are a string band built around two fiddles, two guitars, and percussion. On their seventh and latest release Refuge they even add spoken word. Poet Ifrah Mansour is Somalian, but now lives In Minnesota. Her rap-like poem “I Am a Refugee” is one of many meanings of refuge explored on Refuge. The baker’s dozen tracks look at refuge from numerous angles: embracing nature, immigrating to a new land, seeking safety, experiencing peace, and more. To this end, SoS invited more than 30 guest artists into the studio, the best known of whom are Béla Fleck and Ojibwa writer Duke Redbird. If you’ve heard their past work, you may be surprised to hear instruments such as clarinet, keys, oud, and Persian santur (hammered dulcimer). Redbird’s poetry on “The Power of the Land” dances to faintly Ojibway rhythms and atmospheric strings. McKhool is of Lebanese ancestry and the band’s take on “El Bint El Shalabeya” is certainly one of the more unusual tracks. It takes a traditional tube, adds oud, clarinet, and surf guitar, and turns it into a cross-cultural/ambiguously temporal dance party. “I’m Free” has an Irish/pop feel with McKhool sawing out the melody and Sudanese-born Waleed Abdulhamid manning vocals. “Imad’s Dream,” sung by Imad Al Taha, is about a gay Iraqi man forced to flee his homeland. It is appropriately fashioned as a slow soulful, mournful lament. And so it goes. Each track on Refuge is provocative and expertly done. Sultans of String are definitely a band you should know.


Rob Weir  




Best and Worst Novels of 2020

Best and Worst Novels of 2020


I read so many novels last year that my initial list of best fiction had two dozen titles. It is thus with a heavy heart that I have winnowed it to just 10. Alas, I read 9 bad ones as well. All of these have been reviewed and can be accessed by clicking on the Books


Read ‘em





1. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins:  This 2,500-mile refugee journey will break your heart. You’ll never again be cavalier about illegal immigrants.


2. Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Zafon died in 2020, so this is the final chapter in the amazing saga of the Sempere family. Opus Dei, assassins, and murderous mayhem in Barcelona near the end of the Franco regime.


3. The Cold Millions by Jess Walter: Spokane in the time of the IWW, free speech fights, and lawless capitalism.


4. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Who builds a fancy home in Pennsylvania, who lives in it, who desires it, and what if they’re all deluded?


5. Jack by Marilynne Robinson: Simply a beautiful piece of prose. A teacher, a bum, and forbidden love–as in, legally forbidden. The more I though of this book, the more I loved it.


6. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell: Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, psychosurgery, fame, trying to stay sane, and those who failed. A strange book that works.


7. The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali: Iran 1953. Dreams and those who killed them. Multiple paths taken in a Romeo and Juliet twist.


8. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich: This, not Orange, is the best work by a Native American writer in 2020. Attempting to break a Chippewa clan in the 1950s, family pride, and the strong women who resisted.


9. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: Crushing black dreams in Florida. A reform school, the perils of optimism, those who survived and those who didn’t.


10. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman: Inept bank robbery, an even more inept hostage crisis, and a totally inept police investigation. Funny and moving. No one does human nature better.


Honorable Mention (alphabetical by author): Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer; Alice Hoffman. Magic Lesson; Alex Landragin, Crossings; James McBride, Deacon King; Elizabeth Mckenzie, The Portable Veblen; Jojo Moyes, The Giver of Stars; V. E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue


Pulp ‘em



1. Just Like You by Nick Hornby: Grow up, Nick!  


2. A Murderous Relation by Deanna Raybourn: Victorian detective sets back modern feminism.


3 The Golden Cage by Camilla Lackberg: A modern novel that sets back modern feminism.


4. Weather by Jenny Offill: Does the last name rhyme with awful? It should.


5. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner: Just flat-out boring.


6. Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan: So you didn’t like your undergrad days. You’re 39. Time to let go.


7. The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin: A take on H. P. Lovecraft that fell flat where it mattered most.


8. Love by Roddy Doyle: Two men drink all day. A story that never concludes and who cares?


9. Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles: Surprising misfire from a good writer.