Young Mungo

Douglas Stuart. Grove, $27 (400) ISBN 978-0-8021-5955-7

The astonishing sophomore effort from Booker Prize winner Stuart (Shuggie Bain) details a teen’s hard life in north Glasgow in the post-Thatcher years. Mungo is 15, the youngest of three Protestant siblings growing up in one of the city’s poverty-stricken “schemes.” The children’s alcoholic mother leaves them periodically for a married man with children of his own. Mungo’s father is long gone, and Mungo’s sister, Jodie, looks after their household as best she can. Hamish, Mungo’s hooligan brother and ringleader of a gang of Protestant Billy Boys, is a constant threat to Mungo, who, tender of heart and profoundly lonely, is at the mercy of his violent moods. Even after Mungo meets the kindred James, a Catholic boy who keeps pigeons, he is overwhelmed by his self-loathing, assuming all the calamity around him is somehow his fault. He doesn’t have a clue what it is he wants. All he knows is that amid the blood and alcohol and spittle-sprayed violence of his daily existence, James is a gentle, calming respite. Their friendship is the center of this touching novel, but it also leads to a terrifying and tragic intervention. Stuart’s writing is stellar—a man’s voice sounds “like he had a throatful of dry toast”; a boy has “ribs like the hull of an upturned boat.” He’s too fine a storyteller to go for a sentimental ending, and the final act leaves the reader gutted. This is unbearably sad, more so because the reader comes to cherish the characters their creator has brought to life. It’s a sucker punch to the heart. Agent: Anna Stein, ICM Partners. (Apr.)