Douglas Stuart won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2020 for his debut novel Shuggie Bain, a book where he drew from his own experiences of his childhood in Glasgow – a working-class queer boy raised by a single mother, suffering from alcoholism, followed by her death and prolonged grief.

His second novel, Young Mungo, is much more fictional in context, but in many ways, a close cousin to Shuggie Bain. It’s not a sequel per se, but it is part of a common narrative – set in Glasgow in the 1990s, with teenage, queer, tender-hearted male protagonists from similar socio-economic backgrounds, treading into themes of poverty, addiction and toxic masculinity, among others.

Who is Mungo?

Young Mungo opens with fifteen-year-old Mungo being sent away on a weekend fishing trip by his mother Maureen with two men he barely knows. She hopes these men – whom she had met only a day before at the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) – will make a man out of her young boy by teaching him to fish, hunt and camp in the wilderness, things that are markers of young boys transitioning into men. Except that the trip has a dark understory of the men sexually assaulting Mungo. As the novel progresses, we gradually learn the things that led Maureen to send him away.

Mungo is named after the Patron Saint of Glasgow who was known for simple and kind miracles like bringing a bird back to life and reigniting a holy fire from frozen branches. Like him, Mungo is seen as a symbol of peace within his family. Just like the saint, he has a healing presence for everyone in his family. He has a capacity to love people who don’t necessarily love him back.

What Mungo goes through is a lot of what adolescent boys strive to live up to at their age. Trying to fit into a narrow world of masculinity, living up to the expectations of a society that constantly expects him to man-up, not just by the men but also by the women in his life. His older brother Hamish, who is the head of the local Protestant gang, conforms to the world of extreme masculinity and wants Mungo to toughen up and follow his footsteps. He represents the cynical young men of Glasgow who lived in hopelessness of employment after “Thatcher years”.

And so, Mungo hangs around with him, participating in violent fights, pretending to love football, and gulp down hard drinks, even though he is far outside of these things and wants to be left alone. There’s also Jodie, his sister, who is only a year older than him, and is extremely bright. She has had to take on the role of Mungo’s caretaker since their mother, Maureen is always disappearing on them, sometimes owing to extreme alcoholism and other times, to new boyfriends. She understands Mungo’s vulnerabilities and deep inside wants him to be ready for the world.

Mungo meets James

With the ongoing chaotic family dynamics, Mungo meets James: a lonely, Catholic, queer sixteen-year-old boy who takes care of pigeons in the neighbourhood. They become friends at first, and they know love is forbidden because of their religion. But things get complicated when a romance begins to grow between them.

James too, in his own way, comes from a complicated family and has abandonment issues. His mother is dead and his father spends a lot of time working away from home. He is mostly left alone with no one to really look after him. Both Mungo and James are at a point in their life where they’re trying to figure out what’s going to come next and that’s part of the reason they fall in love.

The world we live in is still very gendered and in the 1990s, it was even more so. It was a time when society was ignorant and queer love was considered a perversion. There was no positive representation of gay people in the media either, and no one questioned the hidden paedophilic tendencies of adult men because to society, their manly, cis-het appearance was good enough.

Voices from the margins

In both Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo, Douglas Stuart does a great job of representing voices
from the margins and portraying Glasgow’s proud working-class community. In principle, such
communities are perceived to be masculine places with men working at the docks and ending
the day with a stiff drink. But the thing with such stories is that there is often a heterosexual
male narrative. We hardly get to see mothers’ or queer boys’ perspectives. But in Stuart’s books
you cannot write the women off.

In Young Mungo, Maureen is a 36-year-old woman who had three kids before she turned
twenty. In her decisions to abandon her children to go live with another man, one is reminded of
the fact that she too hasn’t had much of a life – she was abandoned by her husband in raising their children and at a young age of thirty-six, and all she wants is to have fun and be loved.

Similarly in Shuggie Bain, Agnes finds it hard to fit in with women around her. She has bigger ideas and aspirations, while she is just perceived as a single mother who likes to drink too much and is too friendly with men.

Stuart’s vivid prose is plot-driven and has a sense of dread and suspense to it. In its heart, Young Mungo is a love story despite vivid violence. It’s about first loves, first kisses, and two young Glaswegian boys who shed their inhibitions to embrace a reality that makes sense only to them as they dare to escape a homophobic town.

Young Mungo

Young Mungo, Shuggie Bain, Picador.