DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Douglas Stuart's new novel is called "Young Mungo." The main character here, a young boy, is named Mungo after the miracle-working patron saint of Glasgow, Scotland. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says Douglas Stuart is something of a miracle worker himself. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: A coming-of-age story about a gay working-class boy set in 1980s Glasgow, where the characters sometimes speak in Scots dialect - such a tale is not an easy sell, which is why Douglas Stuart's debut novel "Shuggie Bain" was initially turned down by over 30 publishers before finding an audience and eventually winning the Booker Prize in 2020. It's tough to follow such a success story, but if Stuart was cowed, his latest novel doesn't betray any artistic hesitations. "Young Mungo," like its predecessor, is a nuanced and gorgeous heartbreaker of a novel. Reading it is like peering into the apartment of yet another broken family whose Glasgow tenement might be down the road from Shuggie Bain's. The two characters, in fact, share some crucial similarities. Like Shuggie, 15-year-old Mungo Hamilton is gay, and Mungo's mother is also an alcoholic. What's different about Stuart's new novel is its form. The outer frame here is a suspense story, a story not just of innocence lost, but slaughtered.
The novel opens on a scene of Mungo being led away from his tenement home as his mother, drinking a tea mug of fortified wine, watches impassively from a window. He's reluctantly in the company of two men, strangers, both hard-looking. They're taking Mungo off for a camping trip where he's to be taught to gut fish, make a fire, learn to be a man. Sandwiched between the two men in the back of a bus, Mungo has a bad feeling, so his chronic facial tic starts acting up. Mungo suffers from anxiety - as his kindly older sister, Jodie, reflects, there was a gentleness to his being that put girls at ease. They wanted to make a pet of him, but that sweetness unsettled other boys.
Stuart structures this story mostly in the form of a flashback to the months preceding this menacing camping trip. As he did so deftly in "Shuggie Bain," Stuart takes us readers deep into the working-class world of Glasgow - here, circa early 1990s - where jobs and trade unions have been gutted. Stuart, who grew up in this world, has said in interviews that he doesn't want to take middle-class readers on what he's called a working-class poverty safari. Accordingly, he doesn't translate but lets the life of the tenements make itself known through his precisely observed and often wry style. For instance, here's a scene where Mungo has been summoned by his brother Hamish, a vicious teenage gang leader and new father. Mungo steps into the flat where Hamish and his gang are watching TV.
(Reading) The settee had six boys crammed onto it. They were packed thigh to thigh. In their nylon tracksuits, they looked like so many plastic bags all stuffed together. On the soundless television, an English woman was dipping a vase into liquid and showing the audience how to crackle glaze the surface of it. Each one of the young men was staring slack-jawed at the screen. On the low table in front of them sat a bundle of folded nappies amongst a pile of stolen car radios, half-drunk bottles and one very large tomahawk. The woman stopped glazing her vase and held it out for the cameras. The young men looked from one to another in amazement, white pearls of acne flushed across their foreheads. That's pure beautiful, said a ginger-headed boy. They all nodded in agreement.
Immediately after that art appreciation interlude, Hamish forcibly arms Mungo with a switchblade and insists Mungo accompany him on a job - all to toughen him up. The toxic masculinity of Mungo's world is as pervasive and aggressive as the beat of the techno music the gang listens to. Then one day, deliverance - Mungo meets a boy named James who keeps pigeons in a dovecote on a sliver of nearby wasteland. They fall in love. And as if that weren't dangerous enough, James is Catholic, and Mungo is Protestant.
We readers know none of this will end well, but it's a testament to Stuart's unsparing powers as a storyteller that we can't possibly anticipate how very badly and baroquely things will turn out. "Young Mungo" is a suspense story wrapped around a novel of acute psychological observation. It's hard to imagine a more disquieting and powerful work of fiction will be published any time soon about the perils of being different.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Young Mungo" by Douglas Stuart. On tomorrow's show, the story of a mixed-race investigator who travelled the Deep South posing as a white man investigating lynchings. Walter White became an influential leader of the NAACP, building its legal and political power to fight for justice and integration. We'll talk with writer A.J. Baime, who tells the story in his new book, "White Lies." I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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