Young Mungo: Not for the faint-hearted

The first pages of Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart will fill you with dread. Peril drips from every word, the two men with ‘slitted eyes’ itchy to be leaving ‘hands ferreting inside their trouser pockets as they peeled their ball sacks from their thighs’. Mungo looks up at his mother waving from their tenement window. She imagines/hopes his nervous twitch is Morse code for f.i.n.e. She is keen to fill her teacup with something stronger.

Young Mungo has much in common with Douglas Stuart’s earlier book Shuggie Bain, also a Pocket Bookclub read. A book I suggested might break a person. Both Shuggie and Mungo are outsiders in their Glasgow communities. They have absent fathers and dysfunctional attachments to their alcoholic mothers. Both boys witness and are subject to horrendous violence. Both are coming-of-age stories in which Mungo and Shuggie are entangled in a dysfunctional family and narrow cultural view of manhood. And yet, the plots are different.

There is something special about Mungo. He is named for St Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow and there is something saintly about Mungo’s capacity for love and kindness despite the violence in his life. Most of this love is for his mother, Mo-Maw, which frustrates his sister Jodie, who is more a mother to Mungo than his mother.

“Mungo’s capacity for love frustrated her. His loving wasn’t selflessness; he simply could not help it. Mo-Maw needed so little and he produced so much. So that it all seemed a horrible waste. It was a harvest no one seeded, and it blossomed from a vine no one tended.”

Douglas Stuart, Young Mungo

But a shift happens when Mungo meets his sweet Catholic neighbour James and we witness a strange dance of intimacy and playful violence.

“Mungo lunged at him then and cracked his fist off his chest. He dared him to strike back. Violence always preceded affection; Mungo didn’t know any other way. Mo-Maw would crack her Scholl sandal off his back, purpling bruises curdling his cream skin, then she would realize she had gone too far and pull him into the softness of her breast. Jodie would scold and demean his poorly wired brain and then, feeling guilty, make a heaped bowl of warm Weetabix and white sugar.”

Douglas Stuart, Young Mungo

While James is pulling Mungo in one direction, his older brother Hamish, or Ha Ha as he is known on the streets expects Mungo to be a ‘real man’, to leave an injured boy for the police, to fight the Catholics, to do as he is told. Hamish is Mungo’s childhood tormentor and he reeks of menace. There is danger in Mungo’s relationship with James, not just the nature of it, but the Catholic – Protestant divide which defines Hamish, he does not question why they brawl – it is just fun. And the way his father died. When Hamish tells the prettiest girl in school he is a bigger man when she is around and that she alone makes him want to get his life together, ‘she swanned around like a saviour in a b-cup’.

Stuart is a master at analogy. At the golf course, ‘Plump middle-aged man looked as cheerful as bonbons in their pastel jumpers‘ and a glimpse inside a boozer at ‘a cluster of stout women dancing together, gyrating across the floor like washing machines that had juddered lose from their brackets.’

There are many types of love in Young Mungo – dysfunctional, selfish, nationalistic, new love, forbidden love, sibling love, lustful love, and convenient love. Of Mungo’s mother her current boyfriend says;

“Listen son, at ma age love is a nuisance of a thing. What ye want is some easy company on a Tuesday night, a bit of help runnin’ the hoose, and if yer lucky a bit of nookie as long as ye can both lie on yer side while ye’re at it.” Mungo didn’t laugh at the joke. Jocky dropped his dout into his mug. “What ye want is an easy life. There’s nothin’ easy about love.”

Douglas Stuart, Young Mungo

But in this battle between love and hate, violence and intimacy there is nothing pure evil in the characters. The hate and violence are born of hurt and the cycles repeat relentlessly, inescapably. Just when you think the violence and desperation peaks, there is more. This is not a book book for the faint-hearted. But, in the same way that Shuggie Bain was bleak and devasting and gave me a sentence of hope at the close the book, so too does Young Mungo. Persevere. The greater the obstacles the more satisfying the smallest of hope.

Similarly, I posted on two of the available covers for Shuggie Bain, I also have thoughts on Young Mungo’s covers. The cover on the left is an iconic photo by Wolfgang Tillmans called The Cock (Kiss). A fine photo and an amazing cover. In my mind’s eye though, Mungo is a pretty boy without sideburns or a sharp jaw and the cover on the right takes me to the time Mungo spends at the lake with those two terrible slitty-eyed men.

The Pocket Bookclub raged against a book of literary cocktails that only included quotes from men. We embarked on a cunttail project, inventing a cunttail for every book we read in 2022. We made a literary cunttail book! What’s wrong with the word cunt? Nothing

Literary Cunttails 2022 is hand-drawn by Miriama and includes every recipe. Get a free copy.

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