While the title of Douglas Stuart’s new novel invokes Alexander Trocchi’s masterpiece, Young Adam (1954) – thus placing it in a specific Scottish literary context – it is perhaps even more significant that the central character, Mungo, is named after Glasgow’s patron saint, a gentle but determined man, known for bringing dead birds back to life and standing strong, in spite of his physical infirmity, against the pagan hordes who once occupied the banks of the Clyde. Young Mungo is Stuart’s follow-up to his Booker prize- winning novel Shuggie Bain (2020), and it covers similar territory in its exploration of family dysfunction and gay identities on the sectarian, homophobic and often brutal streets of the author’s youth. However, while the fifteen-year-old Mungo’s saintliness provides some interesting narrative opportunities, it also poses serious questions about characterization that the earlier book was not forced to address – existential questions related to good and evil.
Mungo’s 1990s Glasgow is a drab and threatening urban edgeland inhabited by the “lower sort”, an ugly, monotonous, squalid domain where “the shops are cheaper” and the buildings “not yet sandblasted back to their glorious golden color” of yore:” so many lives were happening only two miles away from his and they all seemed brighter than his own.” That other, more fulfilling life is something our protagonist catches only in glimpses from the passenger seat of a stolen car driven by his fiercely anti-Fenian, homophobic brother, Hamish, while the larger Scotland of lochs, glens and heather-clad hills is even more remote – a place where people of the lower sort are treated as out-and-out deplorables.
It is for this territory that Mungo lights out at the novel’s start, accompanied by a pair of dangerous ex-cons named Gallowgate and St Christopher, whom the lad’s negligent, drunken mother, Mo-Maw, has randomly conscripted to take the boy on a weekend fishing trip. The official motive for this excursion is fresh air and clean living, but the real reason is much darker, as revealed in a series of flashbacks in which we witness Mungo’s first meeting with a Catholic pigeon-fancier named James, the Romeo and Juliet-like love affair that ensues, and the backlash they risk, at the hands of their sectarian community. Encouraged by the fiercely independent James, Mungo had dreamed of escaping his downtrodden life – something we sense he could never achieve by himself. Now he is humiliated and forever identified as a “fucking poofter”.
It comes as little surprise to discover that Gallowgate and St Christopher turn out to be the worst possible companions for a rural idyll – and, indeed, from the first the novel simmers with a sense of foreboding. A central aspect of the banality of evil is how crudely opportunistic the malevolent tend to be. Once the boy has been characterized as an outcast – as simply different – he becomes immediate fair game for those who occupy the next level up in the pecking order. Even worse for him is that, within that pecking order, any semblance of goodness – gentleness, tenderness, the capacity for compassion – is seen as weakness. The saint, in this milieu, is not holy, and nor is his capacity for forgiveness exemplary. He is simply a fool, to be abused at will – and when Mungo’s companions finally make their move, it is depressingly predictable.
Herein lies the problem with this novel. Mungo is indeed a saint, after his fashion. He continually forgives his mother’s transgressions, no matter how callous, and in spite of Hamish’s systematic bullying, he feels nothing but tenderness for his brother. He wants to believe the best of people; he does not understand pettiness; in a brutal world, he is fatally disinclined to malice. In short, he is good only in the simplest sense: harmless as a dove, but in the wisdom of serpents – which means that, at the dramatic and altogether unexpected turning point that concludes the fishing trip, a moment in which Mungo ceases to be saintly, the sudden shift may be too hard for some readers to swallow: a matter of magical thinking rather than fictional realism, which sits oddly with everything preceding it. And while by this point many readers will be rooting for some kind of salvation, what is yet more difficult to reconcile, from a moral perspective, is whether or not the vengeful steps Mungo takes offer a just basis for the new life he desires. Stuart seems to think so; I am not so sure.
Young Mungo is set in Glasgow’s past, some years after the Thatcher government “killed the city”. By contrast, Ryan O’Connor’s startling debut, The Voids, takes place in the bleak aftermath of that demise: the title refers to the recently vacated high-rise buildings, awaiting demolition. As the book opens, the narrator remarks that “everything has already happened. The past and the future no longer exist. Either for me or for you… If it were possible to disintegrate time, I can show you how easily things fall apart” – and, on first impressions, that is exactly what The Voids sets out to do. Our narrator, we learn, lives alone on the fourteenth floor of a condemned high-rise where all maintenance has ceased. Until recently he had worked as a journalist on one of those free newspapers that the lower sort dole out to inattentive passers-by outside railway stations, but he has lost – or thrown away – this job, along with the woman he allegedly loves, after a series of cringe-inducing and quite hilariously related binges, and he is now in full-on, self-loathing, nihilistic freefall. Elaborate accounts of days-long benders are integral to the Scottish literary tradition, but O’Connor sets the bar high:
I recall passing through a series of pubs, like a worn thread through the eye of so many needles. There were parts of the city I didn’t recognise, and rooms and flats in houses I didn’t recognise. There were further cosmetic transformations. And perfumes and warm skin and mouths I was lost in. Yet none of my memories stitched together. Rather, it was an unstitching … I remember calling my work with one excuse for not being able to make it in, forgetting I’d done so, then hours later, calling again with a completely different excuse. I think this happened several times. On one occasion I had rabies, and on another I declared myself deceased.
This unstitching continues through a series of absurd, often squalid, occasionally quite visionary, but always uproarious episodes – and it is clear that the narrator, whom we only ever know by what might well be a pseudonym, is both dangerously unhinged and desperately vulnerable. While, he is aware of what he is doing to himself and seems at times to regret the damage, just as he seems helpless to put a stop to it – so that, as funny as The Voids is, there are times when the hilarity feels more than a little uncomfortable. As we laugh along through an excruciating scene in which the narrator and a couple of pals drunkenly order every single item on a kindly Chinese restaurateur’s menu, then forget having done so, or – even more uncomfortably – through an impossibly tense abduction-cum-car -crash fiasco, during which the narrator’s life is in genuine danger, we are obliged to accept that the real triumph here is the triumph of the grotesque. This is comedy at its most existential: the more we laugh, the more we long for some kind of redemption.
Portents of that redemption do, in fact, glimmer throughout, from visions of the eerie beauty of the abandoned tenements to poignant moments featuring their displaced, dignified and often now-homeless inhabitants. (One of the most powerful scenes concerns an older resident of the voids, Pete, who takes his leave of the narrator accompanied by a fleet of paper aeroplanes.) Yet O’Connor knows that redemption is no simple – or, indeed, logical – matter. While Mungo might have a fair shot at salvation simply by finding a place where he and James can be together, the problem for the self- destructive narrator of The Voids is not practical but existential. By now, the legacy of social and moral disintegration that Stuart’s “lower sort” justifiably attribute to Thatcherism and the destruction of the Glaswegian working class has become an endemic, almost casual anomie. As O’Connor’s narrator puts it, having just performed the drunken cliché of smashing his fist into a mirror:
Pete was right. Sometimes you wake up out of a dream you didn’t want to leave and the life in front of you is emptiness, and everything you ever loved is back in that dream, and it hurts so much because you know you can never go back there . I’d woken up out of such a dream – only what hurt, what made it unbearable, wasn’t leaving the dream, or being unable to return to it – it was realising that I didn’t have a dream to go back to .
This is the point at which true redemption is forged, though the shape it takes is provisional, improvised and as subject to the elements as a paper plane thrown from the roof of an empty building from which the temporarily housed have recently been evicted.
John Burnside‘s latest collection of poems isLearning to Sleep2021
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