With his exquisitely detailed debut novel, Douglas Stuart has given Glasgow something of what James Joyce gave to Dublin. Every city needs a book like Shuggie Bain, one where the powers of description are so strong you can almost smell the chip-fat and pub-smoke steaming from its pages, and hear the particular, localized slang ringing in your ears.
It’s a novel about love, the real, complicated kind. Shuggie, growing up “different” and effeminate in 1980s Glasgow, loves his mother, Agnes, despite her tendency toward alcoholic binges that make her neglectful and mean. Agnes, glamorous, proud, and “gleaming” like a Scottish Liz Taylor, loves her husband, Shug, even though he’s cruel and unfaithful. And although it’s depicted as poverty-stricken, miserable, and dark, the book is also a love letter of sorts to Glasgow. It’s a portrait of a city ravaged by Margaret Thatcher’s government that is both unflinchingly authentic and poignantly tender.
It’s difficult to convey the brutal and lasting impact of pit and shipyard closures on Glasgow to those who aren’t familiar with the city. Some of Stuart’s description, set in 1981–89, still rings startlingly true today. The loss of the industries that made Glasgow a proud and powerful working-class city had a profound effect on its communities. Driving around town working as a taxi man, Shug notes:
The city was changing; you could see it in people’s faces. Glasgow was losing its purpose, and he could see it all clearly from behind the glass . . . industrial days were over, and the bones of the Clyde Shipworks and the Springburn Railworks lay about the city like rotted dinosaurs.
Walking around Glasgow, you can still see the skeleton-like remains of these old, once-proud industrial areas. And you can still meet the sorts of characters the tumultuous era produced: the lost souls consumed by drink, and the ones hardened by a stubborn sort of resilience.
The two characters Shug picks up on his journey embody both these archetypes. One is an “auld Glasgow Jakey” wearing a “yellowed shirt and a crumpled grey suit” and an “oversize topcoat [that] . . . gave him the look of a refugee.” The other is “A Glasgow housewife” who “sits square in the middle . . . upright and rigid, like a Presbyterian queen, knees together, back straight, with her hands clasped in her lap.” She tells Shug that a taxi is an unusual luxury for her: her husband’s out of work. “Twenty. Five. Years. Out at the Dalmornock Iron Works, and all he got was three weeks wages,” she says. “Three weeks! I went there myself, chapped on the big red gaffer’s door, and I telt him what he could dae with three weeks wages.”
Women and Pithead
One of the most interesting aspects of Shuggie Bain is the way it exposes the subtle gender flip that occurred as a result of mass unemployment. Stuart’s two taxi riders are a classic example of how men and women responded differently to the crisis. As in a war, men were perceived as the primary victims, and women were expected to pick up the pieces, stay strong, and keep the family together.
Stuart touches upon this with a light but laser-sharp eye, particularly when the novel sees the Bain family moving to Pithead, a bleak housing scheme on the edge of a disused colliery. Convinced by Shug that the “flitting” represents a fresh start for the family, Agnes agrees to move from her mother’s flat in Sighthill to a “council flat in a two-up, two down,” where she is promised her “own front door, and garden.”
The “low-roofed house” on the outskirts of the city that Shug signs for, without seeing it, “with all the casualness of buying a raffle ticket,” is emblematic of the aspirational domesticity that many working-class, urban people were encouraged to strive for in Thatcher’s Britain. In reality, the houses in these peripheral areas were (and still are) badly insulated and poorly built. There is a wonderful scene about the slow rise and crush of hope the family experiences as they drive to their new home:
“Joe’s said it’s like a happy little village. Nicest place you could hope to live.” . . . They slid the windows all the way down, and the taxi filled with a rushing breeze that carried the scent of fresh-cut grass and wild bluebells . . . the road narrowed again and the last of the manicured gardens dropped away for good. The housing scheme spread out suddenly before them . . . low-roofed houses, square and squat, huddled in neat rows. The scheme was surrounded by peaty marshland and . . . land blackened and slagged in the search for coal.
“Is that it?” she asked.
Shug couldn’t answer. From the roundness of his shoulders, she could see his own heart had sunk.
The move is a disaster. “I can’t stay any more. I can’t stay with you. All your wanting. All that drinking,” Shug tells Agnes the night they move in. He leaves her “Sparkling and fluffy, like a party dress that had been dropped on the floor” in the hallway of their new house in this strange new world.
Agnes quickly discovers that Pithead is a community run by the women. The men, emasculated by unemployment, are as lost as children and quiet as ghosts:
The miners’ tackety boots made sparks on the tarmac. The men slowly started drifting one by one along the empty road. There was no colliery whistle now; still the men were pushed along by the muscle memory of a dead routine, heading home at finishing time with nothing being finished, only a belly full of ale and a back cowed with worry.
By contrast, the women are vividly drawn creations that render the full force of Stuart’s extraordinary descriptive power. “Grey coloured,” with faces as “taut as a leathered skull,” they survey their queendom with arms “folded like car bumpers.” They are the ones who pick up the “Monday checks” from the Giro and learn savvy tricks, like prizing pennies from the gas meter, to keep their children warm. They keep the remnants of their smoke-stained, faded, forgotten society up and running. Yet there is no solidarity within this community. At one point, Agnes questions the curious lack of mutual support:
Some days, not many, Agnes thought it was a shame they could not be more civil. There was so much the women held in common, although Agnes would have bitten off her own tongue before she admitted it . . . They knew the keen edge of need. Separately, they had . . . lain awake in the quiet of the night, wondering how to make a pittance stretch around. It was a mother’s math.
Resilience and Resistance
Shuggie Bain is not so much a book about Shuggie as it is about Agnes. She is the real heroine of this story, so evocative and striking that she may be one of those characters you never forget. Stuart writes about Shuggie, a lonely, loving boy struggling with his sexuality, with skill. But the depiction pales in comparison to the sheer, knock-out force of what he managed to create with Agnes.
Agnes is desperate, haughty, humble, selfish, resourceful, and full of love. Her addiction is heartbreaking precisely because it has the power to slowly break the will of such a woman. “Every day, with the make up on, and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high,” observes Shuggie. “When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.”
Why, then, did Stuart not call the book “Agnes Bain”? The title could quite conceivably be a nod to Shuggie’s survival. Of all the characters in the book, Shuggie is the only one who emerges with some of the hope in his heart intact. Despite everything he has seen and been through, despite all the disappointments, the trauma and the grief, he still has the capacity to love.
Shuggie Bain is, in general, a bleak portrayal of working-class Scottish life. It presents a world full of cold, unforgiving people who are more or less out for themselves. With the exception of Shuggie, and to some extent his brother, Leek, the characters in Shuggie Bain are frequently selfish and relentlessly mean. Even a late arrival that seems to be a positive influence — something of a relief for the reader — turns out to be a crushing disappointment, and a catalyst for life to get even worse.
There are moments of tenderness, of course. There are beautiful, humorous scenes between Agnes and Shuggie, between her other, older children, and between Agnes and her own mother, Lizzie. But all of these rare moments of joy and trust are strictly confined to the small family unit. The outside world is threatening, a mocking, sinister, and cruel place where no one can be trusted.
Were communities like these in the ’80s really quite so dog-eat-dog? There’s no doubt that life was hard, and it’s certainly true that things like addiction and sexuality were much more misunderstood then they are now. But there is also evidence of solidarity and class resistance in such places: the 1989 anti-poll tax revolution in Glasgow, which is widely believed to have triggered Thatcher’s decline, is a strong example. There are also many accounts of communities banding together and supporting one another in Scotland during this period of deindustrialization, particularly women.
Having said this, it’s plausible that many places in Scotland were untouched by this spirit of solidarity. What’s more, it’s not Stuart’s responsibility to provide an all-encompassing historical overview of the Scottish working class. He’s a fiction writer — and his novel is saved from the “misery-lit” trap it could’ve fallen into by the utter beauty of its writing and the sheer authenticity of its world. Stuart himself grew up in public housing in Glasgow, and he approaches the many social problems his characters encounter with delicacy and compassion.
What it really comes down to is this: Shuggie Bain is full of people doing and saying awful things to one another all the time, but nobody really seems truly awful. Maybe this is what makes the novel so powerful and sad — it turns over the ugly side of humanity to find the softness and the beauty underneath. It shows us that, just like the hope that “bubbles like yellow sunshine in Shuggie’s stomach,” this beauty, against all odds, survives.