Douglas Stuart: “Shuggie Bain”

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Author, Stuart Douglas. Photo by Clive Smith.

Douglas Stuart discusses writing about a mother who is generous, loving, tenacious, funny, exhausting, and proud first; an alcoholic second. At its heart “Shuggie Bain” is about the love between a mother and a son, and the sacrifices we make for the people who mean the most to us. How far can you go to save the person you love before you have to save yourself? Set in 1980s Glasgow, with the policies of Margaret Thatcher weighing on the working-class, inspired by Stuart’s own young life, this deeply personal debut novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Booker Prize. This is not a book to miss.

*This episode originally aired on October 29, 2020.

Excerpt from “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart.

The day was flat. That morning his mind had abandoned him and left his body wandering down below. The empty body went listlessly through its routine, pale and vacant-eyed under the fluorescent strip lights, as his soul floated above the aisles and thought only of tomorrow. Tomorrow was something to look forward to.

Shuggie was methodical in setting up for his shift. All the pots of oily dips and spreads were decanted into clean trays. The edges were wiped free of any splashes that would go brown quickly and ruin the illusion of freshness. The sliced hams were artfully arranged with fake parsley sprigs, and the olives were turned so that the viscous juice slid like mucus over their green skins.

Ann McGee had the brass neck to call in sick again that morning, leaving him with the thankless task of running his deli counter and her rotisserie stand all alone. No day ever started well with six dozen raw chickens, and today of all days, it was stealing the sweetness out of his daydreams.

He pushed industrial skewers through each cold, dead bird and lined them up neatly in a row. They sat there, with their stubby wings crossed over their fat little chests like so many headless babies. There was a time he would have taken pride in this orderliness. In reality, pushing the metal through the bumpy pink flesh was the easy part; the difficult part was resisting the urge to do the same to the customers. They would pore over the hot glass and study each of the carcasses in detail. They would choose only the best bird, ignorant to the fact that battery farming meant they were all identical. Shuggie would stand there, his back teeth pinching the inside of his cheek, and indulge their indecisiveness with a forced smile. Then the pantomime would really begin. “Gies three breasts, five thighs, and just wan wing the day, son.”

He prayed for strength. Why did no one want a whole chicken any more? He would lift the carcass using long prongs, careful not to touch the birds with his gloved hands, and then he would dissect the parts neatly (skin intact) using catering scissors. He felt like a fool standing there against the broiler lights. His scalp was sweating under the hairnet and his hands were not quite strong enough to artfully snap the back of the chicken with the dull blades. He hunched slightly, the better to throw his back muscles behind the pressure in his wrists, and all the time he kept smiling.

If he was very unlucky, the tongs would slip and the chicken would thud and slide its way across the gritty floor. He’d have to make an apologetic pretence of starting again, but he never wasted that dirty bird. When the women turned away he would put it back with its sisters under the hot yellow lights. He believed in hygiene well enough, but these little private victories stopped him from starting a riot. Most of the judgy, man-faced housewives who shopped here deserved it. The way they looked down on him flushed the back of his neck scarlet. On particularly low days he folded all types of his bodily discharge into the taramasalata. He sold an uncanny amount of that bourgeois shite.

He had worked for Kilfeathers for over a year. It was never meant to be that long. It was just that he had to feed himself and pay his own dig money each week, and the supermarket was the only business that would take him. Mr Kilfeather was a parsimonious bastard; he liked to staff the shop with anyone he didn’t have to pay a full adult wage, and Shuggie found himself able to take short shifts that fit around his patchy schooling. In his dreams he always intended to move on. He had always loved to brush and play with hair; it was the only thing that made time truly fly. When he had turned sixteen he had promised himself he would go to the hairdressing college that sat south of the River Clyde. He had gathered up all of his inspiration, the sketches he had copied from the Littlewoods catalogue and pages ripped from the Sunday magazines. Then he had gone to Cardonald to see about the evening classes. At the bus stop outside the college he alighted with half a dozen eighteen-year-olds. They wore the newest, most-fashionable gear and talked with a buzzing confidence that masked their own nerves. Shuggie walked half as fast as they did. He watched them go in the front door, then he recrossed the street to catch the bus going the other way. He started at Kilfeathers the following week.

Shuggie killed most of his morning break poring over the damaged tins in the discount bins. He found three small cans of Scottish salmon that were barely damaged, the labels were scuffed and marked, but the tins themselves were intact. With the last of his wages he paid for his small basket and placed the tins of fish inside his old school bag, which he locked again inside his locker. He sloped up the stairs to the staff canteen and tried to look nonchalant as he passed the table of university students who worked the easy summer shifts and spent their breaks looking self-important, surrounded with thick folders of revision notes. He fixed his gaze to the middle distance and sat down in the corner, not with, but near enough to the girls from the tills.

In truth, the girls were three middle-aged Glasgow women. Ena, the ringleader, was a rake-thin, poker-faced woman with greasy hair. She had no eyebrows to speak of, but she did have a faint moustache, which seemed unfair to Shuggie. Ena was rough even for this end of Glasgow, but she was also kind and generous in the way hard-done- to people often are. Nora, the youngest of the three, wore her hair scraped tightly back and held in place with an elastic band. Her eyes, like Ena’s, were small and sharp, and at thirty-three she was a mother of five already. The last of the group was Jackie. She was different to these other two in that she very much resembled a woman. Jackie was a riotous gossip, a big, bosomy sofa of a woman. It was her that Shuggie liked best.

He sat down near them and caught the ending to the saga of Jackie’s latest man. It was guaranteed that the women were always full of good-hearted patter. Twice now they had taken him along on their bingo nights, and as the women drank and howled with laughter, he sat amongst them like a teenager who couldn’t be trusted to stay home alone. He had liked the way they sat easily together. How their bulk surrounded him and the softness of their flesh pressed into his side. He liked how they fussed with him, and although he protested, how they pushed his hair from his eyes and licked their thumbs to wipe the corners of his mouth. For the women, Shuggie offered some form of male attention, and it did not matter that he was only sixteen and three months. Under the La Scala bingo tables they had each tried at least once to brush against his cock. The strokes were too long, too searching, to be truly accidental. For Ena-with-no-eyebrows it could become almost a crusade. The deeper she went into drink, the more brazen she became. With every passing graze of her ringed knuckles, she clamped her fat tongue between her teeth, and kept her eyes burning into the side of his face. When Shuggie had finally flared with embarrassment, she had tutted, and Jackie had pushed two pound notes across the table to a beaming, victorious Nora. It was a disappointment, sure, but as they drank deeper they decided it had not been a rejection exactly. Something about the boy was no right, and this was at least something they could pity.

Excerpted from Shuggie Bain © 2020 Douglas Stuart. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.