Review by Brian Tanguay
Review by Brian Tanguay
I decided to read Shuggie Bain after listening to Michael Silverblatt interview the novel’s author, Douglas Stuart, on Bookworm. By the time that interview aired Stuart’s stunning debut had garnered a Booker Prize and loads of critical buzz, but it was Silverblatt’s unbridled enthusiasm for the book that made reading it seem as imperative as the justified critical acclaim. Shuggie Bain is one of those novels that is many things at once: sad and beautiful, desolate and hopeful, harrowing and triumphant — and worth every moment spent in its company.
The novel opens in 1992 on the South Side of Glasgow with fifteen-year-old Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, toiling at a menial job and living in a boarding house owned by a Pakistani woman who doesn’t ask too many questions about her tenants. It’s a rough existence, too near the edge for comfort, but Shuggie is used to deprivation having lived in Pithead, a housing project on the edge of an abandoned coal mine. Pithead is where those left behind by Margaret Thatcher’s political and economic revolution live in squalor. The mine is closed and the shipyards are shuttered; fathers are unemployed and mothers struggle to stretch the weekly dole. In most households alcohol is purchased before food. Happiness is hard won and rare in Pithead, and aspiration to rise up and out takes a backseat to the daily struggle to avoid sliding further down.
Shuggie is different from his peers. Eloquent where they are inarticulate, polite rather than ill-mannered, gentle instead of rowdy. Unlike his father, Big Shug, he will never be a skirt chaser or play football with his mates; he has no friends to speak of. He is queer, a wee poofter, a reliable target for verbal abuse, showers of spit, and fists. Shuggie’s life revolves around his mother, Agnes, she’s his friend, confidant, and primary source of unconditional love. Agnes Bain is a rose in a field of weeds, proud of her Elizabeth Taylor-like looks, style, and attitude. When Agnes sets off down the dingy street it is always with head held high and her heels clicking smartly on the pavement. She dresses to impress, to attract, and to proclaim her superiority to Pithead. Agnes has an audacious personality that is magnetic to men and threatening to other women. Against the dreary backdrop, Agnes appears posh, but she’s also a drunk of the sort that begins the day by draining the dregs left from the night before. She hides bottles of vodka and cans of Special Brew around the house. Strip away the clothes, face paint and hair and Agnes is no better — and in some ways worse — than the housewives who wear ratty housecoats and rarely bother to run a brush through their hair.
No matter how irresponsible and reckless his mother’s behavior (like the time Agnes deliberately set fire to the curtains), Shuggie adores her and does everything in his power to protect her from herself and make her happy. The child wipes vomit from his mother’s lips, makes her drink milk for her stomach, and stops her from spending all the money from the weekly dole on drink. He knows she is lonely and in pain and that she drinks to forget herself more than to have a good time. He also knows she uses the men she takes up with as much as they use and abuse her; he sees it all without flinching.
The bleakness and degradation of the working-class Bain family is leavened with humor and tenderness. With the help of regular meetings and fellowship at the Dundas Street AA, Agnes manages an entire year without a drink. For Shuggie and his older half-brother Leek it’s the best year of their lives, a respite from the madness and daily worry about what their mother might do next. Free of drink it seems Agnes has turned a corner, prevailed over her addiction, and when she meets the taxi driver Eugene she might be on her way out of the hell she has put herself and her family through. But it’s not to be. Though Agnes comes tantalizingly close to overcoming her addiction, the siren call of drink is too strong and she tumbles off the wagon head first. Leek can’t take any more and when Agnes casts him out he’s gone for good, leaving Shuggie with sole responsibility for their mother. Shuggie can’t catch a break from the adults in his world; they are twisted and broken by forces beyond their control and betray him at every turn.
And yet, Shuggie never gives up on his mother. He sees in her what she can be rather than what she is. The simple fact is that Shuggie loves his mother. “She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but Shuggie looked at her now and understood this was where she excelled. Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high.” This spirit is Shuggie’s inheritance. No matter how precarious his circumstances the little queer boy who must too soon become a man will turn his best face to the harsh world. It’s why we see him at the end of the novel spinning on the only pair of heels he owns.