A fifteen-year-old boy navigates poverty, gang violence, family dysfunction, and homophobia in 1980s Glasgow, Scotland. Such is the subject of Douglas Stewart’s (Shuggie Bain) latest novel, and it’s an immersive and emotionally gripping story with thematic similarities to the work of James Joyce.
Mungo Hamilton is the youngest son of an alcoholic, often absent mother Maureen (Mo-Maw). He lives in public housing in one of Glasgow’s poorest neighborhoods where the economic policies of the Thatcher administration have created widespread unemployment. The enormity of Mungo’s plight is evident from the first chapter. Mo-Maw has disappeared, again. There’s no food in the apartment, no money to pay the bills, and his older brother Hamish (Ha-Ha) is strong-arming him to help out with his street crime schemes. Mungo, named after the lesser-known Saint Mungo of Medieval Britannia, has not yet succumbed to the bitterness of his older siblings. His sister Jodie rages over their mother’s failings while Hamish tries to grab what scraps he can from an unjust world, no matter who he hurts along the way. Mungo is the peacekeeper, the optimist, and the gentle soul in the family. Both in spite of and because of his nature, one immediately worries about the tragedies that lie ahead of him.
Yet, it’s Mungo’s story, and Stewart brings the reader in to see things from Mungo’s perspective. His mother’s neglect is frightening, but when she’s around, they share an intimate bond that transcends the troubling uncertainty of the world. His sister Jodie likewise provides some maternal comfort and protection. She wants Mungo to get an education and serves as a foil to Hamish, who’s a dropout and a thug. Mungo isn’t ready to decide what kind of man he should be to survive life’s hardships, but with his family dissolving, very soon, he must.
Then he meets an Irish Catholic boy named James, and that decision gets even more complicated.
James is gentle-hearted like Mungo, and he’s handsome and embattled by his own family problems. He raises pigeons in the backyard of his apartment building. Mungo is fascinated by him, and the fascination is reciprocated. They’re set apart by their religious affiliations, and though religious tensions abound in 1980s Glasgow, the boys are too young to have been spoiled by those prejudices.
Homophobia is a different story, however. Mungo recognizes that the feelings he has for James could lead to a lifetime of ridicule if discovered and even his own destruction.
Being the kind spirit he is, he worries more about the consequences for James. Thus their relationship develops tentatively and secretly. A side character, nicknamed Poor-Wee-Chickie, is Mungo’s only reference point for how gay men live, and as they say, it’s complicated. Chickie is unabashed, reviled, the butt of jokes, fearsome and lonely, living by himself. Worried about guilt by association, Mungo is terrified of him at first. But he turns out to be the confidante Mungo desperately needs, and he provides Mungo with some pivotal advice.
Stewart clearly knows 1980s working class Glasgow. Its sights and sounds and smells materialize from the pages, from rundown tenements to the crude vernacular of its denizens to their greasy home cooked meals. Amid the unpleasantness of urban living, Stewart also shows how beauty can be found in unexpected places. The prettiness of a Catholic boy’s face, which Mungo glimpses before the lad jumps him in a street fight. The joy of riding double on a bike with one’s best friend, feeling like the wheels you pedal could take you anywhere. A neighbor who gives Mungo the dignity of eating a much-needed meal in privacy. Stewart masterfully renders the environment that surrounds young Mungo with all its toxicities and its sustaining characteristics, however spare.
A portentous side story is slowly interwoven into the major plotline. It involves Mungo going on a fishing trip with a pair of sketchy men who Mungo’s mother hopes will teach him how to be a man. To describe it more would be giving everything away, but suffice it say, prepare yourself for heartbreaking twists.
An absolute triumph in coming-of-age literature, certain to appeal to readers of gay literary fiction and British historical fiction.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters