“Shuggie Bain”, by Douglas Stuart, just won the prestigious Booker Award for fiction; I read it a couple of months ago, and it is an astonishing first novel. The narrator/protagonist is a young boy named Shuggie, for his father Shug, a cab driver married to the boy’s mother, Agnes. The relationship between Agnes, who’s increasingly lostto alcohol, and her youngest son, Shuggie, is the basic structure of this sad, powerful, loving novel, autobiographical in nature.
Agnes, a Catholic, is a great beauty, and wants just a little romance, a little more life, a few more beautiful objects around her, for which, one mightsurmise, she’ll be punished forever, if you see this novel through the lens of Catholicism. Her marriage to the Protestant Shug Bain is a disappointment to her, even though she’s left her boring but decent first husband for the better life she hopes to have with Shug, a womanizer of the worst type. Living with her parents and three children, Agnes finally gets her hope for better housing–or so she thinks–when Shug rents a house way outside of Glasgow, in the middle of nowhere, and promptly leaves Agnes and the children. Agnes must now adjust to a different kind of poverty–almost rural, on the far side of the city. Arriving in her mink coat, beautiful clothes etc., she is immediately scorned by the neighbor women for seeming too grand, but she bonds with a few, just to get some booze (or sedatives): some of these scenes are painful to read. Young Shuggie, though, is her best friend and defender; he’s “a little different” ,as people used to say; the reader is aware that Shuggie will be gay, and Agnes never once cares about that, supporting Shuggie in his attitudes, fantasies, fancy language and the rest. Shuggie, of course, is bullied at school and by neighborhood boys: one of the great strengths of this novel is watching Shuggie cope with these bullies; his older brother, who also lives with then–an older sister has already fled–also tries to teach Shuggie how to walk, appear less effeminate and the like.
Agnes’ one attempt to stop drinking works for a year, during which she meets a truly decent man, who encourages her to drink, and her alcoholism resumes that very night and never leaves again. Much of the novel’s about the daily struggles of both mother and son, as well as their tight bonding and their deep love for one another; Agnes is generous as well as a drunk, a beauty, sometimes a very nice person, and Shuggie will never stop loving/adoring this deeply flawed woman. When they finally move back into the city–into the tenement/slums of Glasgow–Shuggie must yet again find his way through the school bullies, but finally makes one female friend, who accepts him as he is. These incidents are often so painful to read that I often had to put the novel down for periods of time. Shuggie’s brother also flees, leaving Shuggie and Agnes alone to the bitter end, when Agnes literally dies in his arms. The novel actually begins with Shuggie living alone in a boarding house, in a room his brother has just vacated, and we see how he lives his life according to Agnes’ rules and strictures, trying to be decent and clean and maintain the rituals of daily living.
I think that “Shuggie Bain” may be a little too long, as Agnes’ alcoholic incidents worsen; they are repetitive but never stop being painful, and the reader begins to root for Shuggie’s own survival, which we know occurs as the author now lives in New York and has a life in the theater. This excruciating first novel is beautiful, haunting, painful, and magnificent.