Scotland Made Me

Shuggie Bain: A Novel By Douglas Stuart. New York: Grove press. 448 pages. $27.

The cover of Shuggie Bain: A Novel

IN HIS THIRTEEN-LINE POEM “Scotland,” the Scottish poet Alastair Reid invokes a perfect day when “the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels” and “sunlight / stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.” When the poet meets “the woman from the fish-shop,” he marvels at the weather, only to be told by her in the poem’s last line: “We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!”

That tension between high spirits and low guilt, between the dream of happiness and a Calvinist nightmare of retribution, has nourished the Scottish novel over the past half century. Part of the project of novelists such as James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, Andrew O’Hagan, Irvine Welsh, and Alan Warner has been to put a flag up over a Scotland that has been ignored or patronized culturally and politically. More than any group of politicians, they have redefined their own country, creating an independent Scotland in narratives that are dark and uncompromising, whose hallmark is tonal experiment and an ingenious use of voice and a general air of excitement and newness.

In Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark (1981), one of the characters says of Glasgow, the city in which Douglas Stuart’s first novel, Shuggie Bain, is set: “But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.” In the polemical writings of James Kelman, it is clear that the source of repression felt is not only the class system and the dominance of London but also the very idea of power itself, including the power of standard English. In the film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel Trainspotting, one of the characters puts the problem of Scottish hatred and self-hatred succinctly: “Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonized by. We’re ruled by effete assholes.”

The separation between Scotland and England became more noticeable during the 1990s, when the Conservative Party vote in Scotland collapsed (not one Conservative MP was elected in Scotland in the 1997 general election) and in more recent years when the Scottish vote against Brexit was 62 percent, and the Scottish government, which has limited devolved power, responded to COVID-19 with greater urgency and good sense than their masters in London.

Oddly enough, control from London has created a careless urge in Glasgow to enjoy the democratic deficit while it lasts. No one has anything much to lose. The art produced in Scotland over the past half-century—but especially in the 1980s and ’90s—has a high-risk, exuberant edge. The Scottish novelists have it in for clear plotlines, for gentle or melancholy stories, for bourgeois destinies, for old-fashioned or boring narrative systems. They write spectacularly well about drunkenness, drug-induced antics, long nights wandering in the lower depths, states of alienation, bad sex. This is the tradition out of which Douglas Stuart writes.

The Scottish novelists love bad language, ruined urban landscapes, and broken families. Some of their procedures have much in common with Russian writers in the strange vacuum after communism, as described by Victor Erofeyev in his introduction to The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing (1995): “Beauty yields to expressive pictures of ugliness, beautiful forms give way to deformity. A mocking, shocking, epatant aesthetics is developed. There is a heightened interest in ‘dirty’ words, in obscene language as a detonator of a text. The new literature fluctuates between ‘black’ despair and a totally cynical indifference. . . . Psychological prose gives way to psychopathological prose.”

Monika Baer, Überlieferung verpflichtet, 2014, acrylic and oil on canvas, 98 3/8 × 86 5/8".
Monika Baer, Überlieferung verpflichtet, 2014, acrylic and oil on canvas, 98 3/8 × 86 5/8". Courtesy the artist, Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin, and Greene Naftali, New York

If there is a party in a Scottish novel, the house will be wrecked, or the host tied up. So, too, in Shuggie Bain, when there is a pale attempt to put on music and have a good time, Agnes, Shuggie’s mother, reluctantly agrees to dance with a young visitor, but “the boak rose in her. She turned her head, but it was too late. She vomited the sour contents of lager and vodka and Irn-Bru down the front of his trendy jacket.” Of all the writing about vomit in Scottish and Irish novels, stiff competition, this episode is among the best.

In a Scottish novel, if there is a dream of better public housing, it will end in a high-rise slowly falling apart, just like the buildings that house the Bain family, which are desolate and badly constructed. And, in Scottish fiction, if there is a line of dialogue, it will be filled with the flavor of demotic Scottish speech. Stuart, in Shuggie Bain, is particularly skilled at creating a credible, energetic, living speech for his Scottish characters.

Erofeyev, in his introduction to new Russian writing, also notes how “even that sacred image of Russian literature, the image of the mother who lives in the countryside and whose vocation is to be the guardian of the basic values of life, is portrayed . . . without sympathy.”

The portrayal of a Scottish mother is at the center of Shuggie Bain, set between 1981 and 1992, the years of Thatcher. While Stuart’s novel focuses intensely on one small family, especially on Agnes and Shuggie, he manages to create a portrait of an entire society. “He had heard them say that Thatcher didn’t want honest workers anymore; her future was technology and nuclear power and private health. Industrial days were over. . . . Whole housing estates of young men who were promised the working trades of their fathers had no future now.” Such sweeping accounts of social change are rare in the novel, but they set the scene for Agnes Bain and her three children, two from a first marriage, and Shuggie, from her marriage to a man called Shug Bain, whose bad temper matches his foul mouth.

While most Scottish novelists do not spend much time on the sectarian divide, it is a significant element here. Agnes is Catholic and Shug Protestant. When Agnes, after Shug has left her, begins dating a Catholic, Shug says to his son: “Try and stop her taking up with any Catholics, ye hear?” When Shug finds that Agnes has kept his name, “he smiled, thinking her too proud to go back to being a dirty, common Mick.” (A Mick is a Catholic.) When Shuggie meets a girl, she seems pleased that he is half-Catholic. “My brother would skin me if they knew I was going around with a dirty Orange dog.” (Orange means Protestant.)

The style in the novel is not as wild and experimental as the work of Gray and Kelman. In the precision of his descriptions and his interest in the large griefs felt in small, domestic spaces, Stuart is closest to Andrew O’Hagan among the Scottish novelists, especially the O’Hagan of The Missing (1996), Our Fathers (1999), and The Illuminations (2015).

Shuggie Bain is peppered with Scottish usage (“gallus”; “foustie”; “smirring”; “huckled”). This adds to the sense of gritty truth in the book and to the feeling that the novel is not being written to explain Scotland to outsiders.

While characters here often do their worst, they are created with a somber kind of sympathy. Stuart seeks to slow time down as he dramatizes Agnes’s chaotic alcoholism. Each separate moment of havoc she creates is rendered with emotional care and without judgment. Often, we watch her through Shuggie’s eyes. She is glamorous and stylish. And she is wounded. The men who once wanted her have driven her to this, she believes. She drinks with energy and single-mindedness, taking out her rages by phone on anyone unfortunate enough to be in her address book.

From an early age, Shuggie is mercilessly mocked for his way of talking and walking. There is a scene where he tries to walk “like a real boy”: “He took slower, more deliberate steps, made room for his cock, swung his feet out, and pressed each heel firmly into the soft earth.” He fails to fit in. His difference from others and his isolation mean that he has all the more time to study his mother and observe the world around him. He is one of fiction’s born noticers.

When Agnes stops drinking and joins Alcoholics Anonymous, she finds a job in a filling station at night and meets Eugene, a taxi driver, who encourages her on one outing to have just one or two drinks, as others do. Agnes seems to see the danger, as Eugene does not. The scene is slow and tense and then almost unbearable. She nearly does not drink the wine. But when she takes the very first sip, there will be no going back.

Catherine, Agnes’s oldest child, goes to South Africa to get away from her. Leek, her elder son, leaves home as soon as he can. Thus, Agnes and Shuggie are left together. He cares for her, barely going to school. Some weeks, they run out of money soon after the welfare allowance is collected. It is clear that they are moving toward disaster.

On the surface, the novel is unremittingly bleak. The domestic spaces, the blighted landscape, the meanness of people, the bullying at school, the constant threat of violence, all add up to a picture of misery. Against this, however, there is an undercurrent that becomes more and more powerful, as Stuart, with great subtlety, builds up an aura of tenderness in the relationship between the helpless Shuggie and his even more helpless mother.

Stuart manages to soften the sharp realism of the prose with a sour poetry. Just as the style is layered, no feeling here is simple. Stuart allows his characters to have deep and complex emotions as well as single bursts of rage or sudden fear. By drawing Agnes and Shuggie with so much texture, he makes clear that neither mother nor son can be easily seen as a victim. Instead, they emerge forcefully; they are fully, palpably present. As in Alastair Reid’s poem, they pay for it, but in ways that are more ambiguous and intriguing than any Scottish Calvinist might imagine.

Colm Tóibín’s tenth novel, The Magician, will be published next year by Simon & Schuster.