Shuggie Bain: A Novel
by Stuart Douglas
Hardcover- $18.67

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Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart; Angus King, narrator
Shuggie Bain’s nature and personality always conspired against him to make him more vulnerable to his mother’s capricious behavior and the brutality of the streets. She was self-destructive and blamed everyone else for her own failures. When she made poor decisions, she turned to alcohol for relief. She often used her own body to bargain for alcohol for herself, and food for her children. Modesty was not her strong suit. This low-class behavior, at odds with her pretense to a higher class, with her mannerisms and mode of dress, was counterproductive, and it often led to a fury-laced tantrum characterized by abuse and cruelty as she became more and more desperate and beaten down by the very circumstances she had herself created. After abandoning her first husband, she chose a second, Shug Bain, who was sometimes violent. He became the father of her third child, Hugh Bain, known throughout the book as Shuggie. When Shug abandoned her because of her addiction, her life deteriorated further.
When chance brought her to someone who mentioned Alcoholics Anonymous, she attempted to reform herself, got a job and joined a group. At first, she remained aloof, but she soon embraced the AA principles. She was able to have a year of good health and happiness. She met Eugene who made her feel worthy again. Although she had a kind of rebirth with him, his ignorance about alcoholism as a disease and the backwardness and cruelty of his sister and neighbors, defeated her good intentions.
Shuggie’s half sister and brother, Catherine and Leek, both became frustrated and disgusted with Agnes’ behavior, and they both eventually abandoned her, leaving Shuggie alone and unprepared, as the sole support and protector for his mother. It was his responsibility to provide for them, and he often went hungry as she used the funds she received to buy alcohol instead of food. Although he tried to keep her safe, he often failed in that effort. He was simply too young, too naïve, and too tender a child to successfully traverse his own world, let alone hers. His sexuality was always in question and he was taunted by others, adults and contemporaries, because of his excessively polite behavior, manner of speech, gentleness and concern for the welfare of others. He sported airs the way his mother did. She had trained him well. He was often too innocent to understand the way others treated him, yet he only wanted to be normal. Still, he didn’t know how to be normal, or even what it really meant to be normal. He found it hard to navigate the crude world surrounding him.
The problems and effects of domestic abuse, poor education, ignorance, addiction, and mental illness, for the victim and the victims of the addicted, are truly front and center in the narrative of this memoir. Only someone who has experienced this kind of devastating life, with someone who has succumbed to the ravages of addiction, can fully illustrate its effects on them and others. Often, expected reactions are counter to common decency and/or of a compassionate response. The culture in which Shuggie was raised was sorely lacking in moral values as it was short on good examples of proper decorum and integrity. It was high on poor education which ultimately led to a hardscrabble lifestyle. Bullying and taunting seemed to be not only a part of life, but a welcome one.
Although this is a novel, it is based on the author’s very real experiences, with a parent suffering from addiction and eventually succumbing to it. He was raised in a community called Sighthill, a kind of subsidized housing, in Glasgow, which is where Shuggie also lived, in the book. He is creative and artistic like our main character. He was devoted to his mother, as was Shuggie, with the child ultimately often becoming the parent to the parent, reversing the natural state of affairs. He is five years old as is Shuggie in 1981, when the novel begins. He is abandoned by his father and orphaned at the same age of 16, when his mother dies. He writes this from his own experiences which is why the book feels so authentic. With all of the darkness in this novel, I was contrarily reminded of my own Scottish friends who always found sunlight on their darkest days. The audio narrator is right on point with each of the character’s emotions and mindset.
This is one of the most difficult stories I have read in a long time. However, in spite of every obstacle placed in front of Shuggie Bain, because of his differences from the mainstream young boys, and a mother who was emotionally and mentally challenged, he thrived, albeit somewhat damaged, as a result. When he met a young girl, Leanne, who was also different, his eyes opened, and he began to come out of the turtle-like shell he had built around himself. It enabled him to pull in and out of his troubling life. Loneliness and confusion coupled with hopelessness and helplessness is devastating . Although it is a disturbing novel, it provides a light at the end of the tunnel which is hopeful, so the reader is somewhat troubled, but not melancholy at the end.

 
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