Shuggie Bain Makes It Out

Douglas Stuart’s neo-Dickensian debut might be the best-reviewed book you’ve not yet read in 2020.

Photo: Erik Tanner for New York Magazine
Photo: Erik Tanner for New York Magazine

Shuggie Bain is 5, prissy and precise. “We need to talk,” he tells his mother, Agnes, when the family moves to a sooty mining village on the outskirts of Glasgow. “I really do not think I can live here. It smells like cabbages and batteries. It’s simply unpossible.” Shuggie abhors everything that he deems “common”; he’s the type to stamp his wee foot. He is a creature entirely out of place in shabby working-class 1980s Glasgow, a changeling who speaks like a prince. His family smells his inevitable truth, powerless as they are to stop it. “You’ll be needing that nipped in the bud,” his grandmother tells Agnes. “It’s no right.”

Much is no right in the Glasgow of Shuggie Bain, the hero’s quest of little Shuggie to survive his neo-Dickensian childhood. It is a novel that seems almost more comfortable in a previous century than in our own — no metafictional contortions, no genre-dabbling, no M.F.A.-burnished shine. (“It even seems appropriate that Shuggie, though reared in this coarse world, should speak with a certain delicate refinement, rather as Dickens has his boy heroes, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Pip, speak correct English,” The Scotsman wrote.) But most of all Shuggie Bain is a fat doorstop trudge of perseverance through the alcoholic grimness of poverty and addiction. It is also, despite or because of that, on a very short list, amid a very dissimilar cohort, of the year’s breakout debuts. Shuggie is in contention for the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, both announced this month. And because of an accident of timing — it was released right before the start of pandemic — it might be the best reviewed book you’ve never heard of in 2020, having had other things on your mind.

This was not the plan for Shuggie Bain and its first-time novelist, Douglas Stuart, but this is the year of not-as-planned. Stuart began 2020 with as many good omens as a writer could wish for: a story published in The New Yorker in January (his first-ever published piece of fiction), good reviews all around for Shuggie Bain on arrival in February. For Stuart, who had spent ten years chipping away at a draft at nights, on weekends, on planes, and in foreign hotel rooms on monthly business trips, it was the undreamt-of realization of a long-deferred dream. At 43 — he’s since turned 44 — 20 years into a career as a fashion designer, a trade he learned as a way out of the Glasgow tenement where he, like Shuggie, spent a misfit youth, he was an author at last.

Stuart has a kind, indrawn manner and a Scottish burr softened, though not evicted, after decades of living in New York. “All you really want is for it is to find the reader in the world,” he said over coffee on a bleary, damp gray day in October — Glaswegian weather, except he was sitting only a few blocks from his apartment on Avenue C. “It doesn’t have to be many, but you just want it to sort of join the world.” But within a month of publication, “The world shut down,” Stuart said. Bookstores locked their gates, Amazon slowed shipping on nonessential items. “I mean, my book is the least of anybody’s worries, because we all went through so much,” Stuart said. “But certainly for a debut novelist, we rely so much on people being able to see your book in a store and be curious about it. And so it sort of was — swallowed up is the best way to say it. And so I just went into a period of resetting my expectations, grieving a little bit.”

Shuggie might have slipped unnoticed into obscurity, one of the many worthy titles that fails to find a crowd in the absence of a celebrity book-club plumping or prestige-television acquisition.

Maybe the book was always a bit of a tough sell here. The agonies of 1980s Scotland — riven by unemployment; the erosion of industries like shipbuilding, mining, and ironworking; and a guttering recession – are very real, but, outside maybe Trainspotting, these struggles are hardly well known in the U.S. Shuggie Bain is set in this world of men run aground after the closure of mines, women sunk under the weight of drink, families living week to week on public assistance and disability benefits. It speaks in a Scottish English whose rhythms, even whose vocabulary, can be alien for American readers: misty with smirr and dusty with stour, its bruisers glaikit in their foolishness, gallus in their pride.

At its center is Agnes Bain, an imperious former beauty in a now-ratty mink whose disintegration Stuart observes lovingly but unsparingly. Shuggie is her youngest, her ward, her protector, and her target. He bobs in her beery wake, no more able to save her than his baby doll, Daphne. “I admire things that are unflinching,” Stuart said. “I think that’s the highest accolade.” Not everyone has the stomach for it. When it was submitted to publishing houses, Shuggie Bain was rejected over and over. “My agent told me it was 20 times,” he said. “And then, the other day, she said, ‘Actually, it was 32 times.’”

But the book has always had its supporters. Stuart’s agent is Anna Stein, who represents Ben Lerner and Hanya Yanagihara; when he got 33rd-time lucky, it was with Peter Blackstock, a young English editor at Grove, whose other authors include Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Sympathizer, and Bernardine Evaristo, whose Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker last year. “I was desperate to buy it,” Blackstock told me. And then, with Oxonian tact, “Luckily, I got to be the only person who, I guess, felt quite that way.”

It took a while, but the bet paid off. According to NPD BookScan, which tracks most print sales, the hardcover edition has sold fewer than 5,000 copies to date. But in the wake of the prize attention in October, Grove hurried out a paperback edition of 40,000 copies, and the book is now finding its way onto paperback bestseller lists.

The success of Shuggie Bain inaugurated a new chapter of Stuart’s life, unrecognizable to the young boy he was in Glasgow’s public housing. Shuggie Bain is not a memoir, but the parallels between author and subject are many. “Not a word of it is true, it is all written in truth,” is how he put it. Stuart was the youngest child (as Shuggie is) of an alcoholic mother, besotted with her own Elizbeth Taylor fantasies (as Agnes is). “If you’ve ever loved someone with addiction,” he said, “you’ve developed a lot of strategies to save them from themselves and also to protect yourself. My mother always felt so hard done-to in life and so overlooked — she was never voiceless, but she felt voiceless, I think, because men and society didn’t want to hear from poor women in the ’80s. Too ugly to look at, too uncomfortable to even comprehend. And so I used to sit down and I would say, ‘Let me write your book.’ And she would love that.” They never got farther than the dedication: To Elizabeth Taylor, who thinks she does, but knows nothing about the cruelties of love. Stuart’s writing began there.

Orphaned after his mother’s death, from her addiction, when he was 16 — unlike Shuggie, whose father and namesake, Shug, is a persistent demon presence in Shuggie Bain, Stuart never knew his father — he lived first with his older brother and then on his own in a boardinghouse. He was encouraged by teachers to read Armistead Maupin and Tennessee Williams. (Books had not been a presence in the houses he grew up in; he remembered only a copy of V.C. Andrews’s mass-market incest gothic Flowers in the Attic and a set of pleather-bound “great books” that opened to reveal videotapes.) But to study literature was class-inflected in the U.K. and doubly so in impoverished Scotland, where, as Stuart recalled, “even the word English is quite dangerous on the streets of the south side of Glasgow.” A trade was safer.

Stuart’s relatives were all working men: His uncle a slater (what we would call a roofer), his brother a joiner (a woodworker), his brother-in-law a shipbuilder. None of these were quite the thing for an effeminate, much-harassed young man, who had come to realize, as Shuggie also would, that he was gay. Scotland’s most famous exports are whiskey and textiles — one being self-evidently more appealing than the other — and Stuart had learned the basics of knitting at his mother’s knee. He got into the textile program at Galashiels, as Heriot-Watt University in the Scottish borders is known, paying for his board with a job managing the checkout counters in a supermarket. A master’s degree in menswear at the Royal College of Art in London followed. He was hired from the graduation show in 2000 to Calvin Klein in New York, where he lived in Williamsburg, subsisting on macaroni and cheese from the old L Cafe.

He did well at Calvin Klein and then at Ralph Lauren, but designing luxury goods was alienating. Growing up, he had worn clothes out of catalogues that his mother had purchased on layaway. Suddenly, he said, “you couldn’t make something too expensive.” He left Ralph Lauren for Banana Republic and the promise of a more democratic use of his talents.

Over 15 years at the company, on flights once a month, traveling among Asia, Europe, San Francisco, and New York, Stuart built the kind of life his family had barely dreamed of. But he also felt alienated from himself. In 2008, as the Great Recession set the world soul-searching, he began sketching out characters and scenes. He told almost no one about what he was working on. Eventually, the first draft of Shuggie Bain grew to 900 pages; printed out, it fit in two huge three-ring binders. It was cathartic to write it, even as fiction, he said. “Americans express themselves,” he said. “Americans tell you everything about them. Men from the West Coast of Scotland, we’re not allowed to ever think of ourselves as exceptionally hard done-to or exceptionally talented because we are one of many.” Stuart’s husband, Michael Cary, a curator at Gagosian, learned more about him reading the early drafts than he had ever shared.

Stuart’s project as a writer is in part about clearing space for tenderness among men, space for love. (His second novel, which he has recently completed, is a romance between two boys on opposite sides of sectarian violence in 1990s Scotland.) But it is also about making room for an honest depiction of working-class life. Fiction can be an overwhelmingly middle-class pursuit for writers and for readers. “There’s an enormous burden for people who are writing stories not set within the middle class, because on one hand, we don’t want to be seen to be just doing misery porn,” he said. “On the other hand, we don’t want to be seen as denying the characters the dignity or the truth of what it was really like. There’s a sort of a pressure on working-class stories to not tell the truth with too much reality.” He spoke of a middle-class gaze that believes it is owed a happy ending or, at least, to be let off the hook for its silent complicity. “People like to sort of come along and gawp at the sad bits,” he said. “And then go back to worrying about, you know, do they have almond milk?”

Of course, Stuart himself has long since left the working class, as he freely admits, though not yet so comfortable that leaving a fashion career for writing is not without some anxiety. But no regrets. “I feel like I finally made something happen in my life that I should have done 25 years ago and wish I had done as a kid,” he said. The New Yorker has already run another story, and his second novel is about to begin the editing process. Before then, he’ll dust off the tux for all-virtual National Book Award and Booker ceremonies, where the winners will be announced on November 18 and 19, realizing he is a few pandemic-pounds heavier than the last time he put it on. And he is Scottish enough to have checked Ladbrokes’ Booker odds — the British will bet on anything — and he is not the favorite to win.

The old life that fed Shuggie Bain is behind him, but the path he hoped to follow then is just beginning. He’s there and not there. It is a sensitive business to put your family, even in fiction, out for the entertainment of the world; it’s one thing not to flinch yourself, but another to insist that your loved ones don’t, either. He has only one sibling left living, a sister in Glasgow. She read Shuggie Bain before he even looked for an agent and gave her blessing.

It was smirring grayly on the East Village terrace café where we were sitting, and suddenly, as we sat and talked, out of nowhere, a patio umbrella broke free of its mooring and crashed onto the sidewalk. Stuart laughed. “Maybe that was God’s …” he began, then corrected himself. “Maybe it was my mother reaching out.”

Reaching out to say what? She has been gone almost 30 years; she’ll never know that Shuggie Bain is dedicated to her. How would she feel to be refracted into Agnes Bain, whose pride was her calling card, whose illness was her downfall? “I think my mother felt so unseen in life,” he said. “I think my mother would be thrilled.”

*A version of this article appears in the November 9, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Shuggie Bain Makes It Out