A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Shuggie Bain’s real name is Hugh. He is a slight, sensitive, preteen boy (at school he is called a “wee tiny poof”) living with his mother and his older half-brother and half-sister in a wretched housing complex in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1980s. Shuggie doesn’t have a very happy childhood. The family is poor and on the “dole,” but his biggest problem is that his mother, Agnes Bain, is a hopeless alcoholic, “hopeless” in the sense that she will never stop drinking, will never “get better,” and will eventually drink herself to death. Shuggie loves his mother and he believes, unrealistically, that if he stays by her side, when everybody else abandons her, he can protect her and get her to stop drinking.
Shuggie’s estranged father is Shug Bain, or “Big Shug,” as he is called. He is a real bastard, a self-centered, womanizing, amoral taxi driver. Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, leaves her first husband, taking her two children with her, to marry Big Shug. From that unfortunate union is born the youngest of her three children, Shuggie “Hugh” Bain.
Shuggie’s older half-brother is named Alexander but everybody calls him “Leek.” Shuggie’s half-sister is Catherine. Agnes if the kind of mother who makes her children want to get away from her. She has good intentions as a mother, but she always manages to disgust and alienate her children with her incessant drunkenness. Catherine marries at an early age and moves to South Africa, thousands of miles away from her mother.
The housing complex where Shuggie lives with his family is called Pithead. It was originally intended for coal miners, but most of the coal mines have closed down. The residents of Pithead are crude, spiteful, and cruel. The women hate Agnes Bain because she dresses up whenever she goes out of the house. People who like her tell her she resembles Elizabeth Taylor. Her good looks don’t help her very much.
The Scottish people in Shuggie Bain speak working-class English. They use a lot of words that American readers probably won’t be unfamiliar with. For example, “boak” means vomit; “biro” is an ink pen; a “grass” is a snitch; a “dout” is a cigarette; “wellies” are boots; “papped” means to be thrown out of the house; “weans” are children or offspring; “scheme” is a housing project; “gallus” is an act of boldness or daring. If you don’t have a dictionary of Scottish colloquialisms and slang, these unfamiliar words can usually be deduced from their context in the sentence.
Shuggie Bain is an ambitious (430 pages), rich first novel by a writer named Douglas Stuart. It is a story as much about a self-destructive alcoholic as it is about being the child of an alcoholic. It is a book steeped in time and place (Glasgow, Scotland, of the 1980s). A compulsively readable book, a book well worth reading.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp