Douglas Stuart’s extraordinary novel Shuggie Bain was published on February 11th, but I read it in April, after Covid-19 caused the country to socially distance and bookstores to temporarily close for in-person shopping. Despite how stressed and distracted I felt, I found myself completely immersed in its pages, stunned by the masterful sentences and exquisitely wrenching scenes. It’s about a sensitive boy, Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, whom everybody calls “no right,” though he is perfectly, wonderfully right. But the novel’s heart belongs to Agnes Bain, his mother, troubled and exceptionally beautiful, like “a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor.” Agnes has been all but abandoned by her philandering taxi driver husband and struggles to parent and provide for her family of three children. She keeps an immaculate house, plants the garden with roses, orders nice furniture on installment plans, yet as she continues to be misused by man after man, she descends into alcoholism, and her children slowly leave her, too, until only Shuggie remains.
The relationship between Shuggie and Agnes is particularly tender and devastating, as she dotes on him yet also places him in the horrible position of worrying about and caring for her when she is inebriated. Later on in the novel, after she cleans herself up for a while, attends AA meetings and works as a late-night rest-stop clerk, an opportunity for love with another taxi driver named Eugene seems to appear. In perhaps my favorite scene in the novel, they spend a night on the town, at a Wild West-themed bar, called the Grand Ole Opry, dancing and engaging in fake gunslinger showdowns, and there’s a glimmer of hope. But as Eugene doesn’t understand Agnes’s refusal to drink, he eventually convinces her to partake of a glass of wine, after which she once again loses herself. Ultimately, Shuggie is also forced to make the cruel choice: lose his own future to his mother’s disease or make his own way in the world.
That world, hard as it may be, is incredibly vivid. An overbite, minus a lower set of damaged dentures, resembles the jaw of a “cartoon turtle.” A worn high heel scrapes the floor “with the screech of hard times.” Neighborhood women doing laundry “work the gossip into a lather.” I loved this novel.