One might wonder why a novel that is as invested in portraying a glamorous and spirited, yet troubled woman isn’t named after her instead of her son. “Every day, with the make up on, and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high,” is how her son Shuggie describes his mother Agnes. And sure, Shuggie Bain’s descriptions of its titular character, a refined and sensitive boy who struggles throughout with being different from the other boys, are very well done, but it is Agnes who is all things in this novel. There’s a scene where she’s on the invincible side of drunk and she throws a garbage can through a window. As the reader, you root for her refusal to be derided and discarded, even in its futility. The book’s beginning tells us things don’t end well for Agnes and so it is all the more devastating when for a small section of the novel, she is sober for a whole year. Her banter with Eugene in the Texas-inspired restaurant is brilliant because of how she molds kitschiness into delightful wit. She is cautiously happy. We already know it won’t last.
The story is retrospective, looking back at 1980s Glasgow, in the wake of wide scale coal pit and shipyard closures. It all has the feel of a wet and dark postindustrial, post-apocalyptic hellscape. Children roam and hide from their abusive households in deserted palette yards; they salvage copper from abandoned warehouses. They are abused by predatory men. If the unemployed men form a huddled indistinguishable mass, going off to the bar along the same schedule that was once for work, the women are vividly drawn in individual ways as vivacious, proud, inventive, and intrepid in their pursuit of alcohol. There is so much pain in this novel. The slow deaths from alcoholism are intense, but also inflected with a sad humor that makes the circumstances seem all the more heartbreaking. The novel is drawn largely from moments of vulnerability and so when there are tender, happy moments, they are intense and joyful.
The novel is called Shuggie Bain because Shuggie is the last man standing at the close of the novel in 90s Glasgow. Despite Agnes’ prolonged neglect and shortcomings throughout his childhood, Shuggie isn’t overwhelmed into escape in the same way his older siblings are, and neither does Agnes’ painfully slow suicide by alcohol completely crush the joy and music in his spirit. He inherits the best of her; this is perhaps why he survives as he does. At the end we hope he fares better than Agnes did.
It is easy for a novel as intensely focused on postindustrial economic fallout as this one is to fall into the trap of poverty porn, but it redeems itself through rich descriptions. Even as it brings the bleak and damp coldness to a landscape pocked with ruined warehouses and coal pits to such vivid life that you’ll want to put sweater on, the novel also diligently and gorgeously seeks out every single moment of love, tenderness, and humor that its families can afford.