Young Mungo is a beautiful book; a page-turner in which poverty, violence and addiction all intermingle and are buoyed up but never quite excused by love. It has a dual structure in which a forbidding fishing trip designed to make a man out of Mungo is set in the present; and chapters alternate with the other narrative, Mungo’s relationship with his family and his growing feelings for Jamie, the boy who lives across the way, forbidden by the violent homophobia of Jamie’s father and Mungo’s brother, and also along sectarian lines: Jamie’s a Catholic. The book is a rich evocation of time (the early 1990s) and of place – those who’ve only been to brief visits to Glasgow might discover a different one – of a sub-prole, geographically located language usage that feels both rough and lyrical.
Douglas Stuart has written of how one has to become middle-class to write about working class experience, interesting in its implication that something gets lost along the way, or that memory and perception might be tainted by that transition. And perhaps that’s so; but it doesn’t feel that way when reading Young Mungo. The characters in this novel are aware of the fear, disgust, and aggression their poverty sometimes incites in those more fortunate, and there’s a homology in this with the question of sexuality. The limitations (geographical, educational, material) their poverty imposes is also known to them.
Family is coercive in this novel. People love, but only if you conform; and they’ll beat you, endanger your life, kick you out, until you do. The masculinity in this novel is certainly toxic, beautifully narrated, with an eye to suspense, a certain tension between what is said and what is done, and the odd turn of phrase you want to savour. One of the elements that contributes to the exquisite sadness of the novel is that Mungo and Jamie are 15-16, on the cusp but not quite adults, one forbidden by law to go off on his own, the state thus condoning the violence he is daily subject to; teens on the cusp of change. But it is a transformation they fear they might not live to experience. A fantastic book. I’ve been thinking about it non-stop.
Also note the interesting difference between the UK and US editions: