‘What good was a soft boy in a hard world?’ It’s a question asked by the hero’s older brother in Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, worthy winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, and it is just as much the preoccupation of his follow-up, Young Mungo, as shown by the new novel’s dedication: ‘For Alexander and all the gentle sons of Glasgow’. The worlds of the books are continuous – deprived Glasgow and its environs in the Thatcher years and after – but the characters are not, even if someone who is clearly Shuggie puts in a cameo appearance, asking Mungo Hamilton for advice outside a pawnbroker’s. (The boys are of an age: Shuggie is sixteen at the end of Shuggie Bain, Mungo fifteen during the events of Young Mungo.) Awkward, angular, posh-sounding, black-haired youths wanting to sell their mother’s Capodimonte figurines to buy scissors for a hairdressing course – there can’t be many of those. This little scene is just a flourish, coming too late in the book to signal to readers familiar with the earlier novel the passing on of the baton in a relay race of narrative.
In both books a boy grows up, with an older brother and sister, in a fatherless household where the mother’s need for drink is the only constant. There are differences: Shuggie’s father is alive, distressingly so since he has another family, while Mungo’s father was killed before he was born. Shuggie’s mother is Catholic, his father Protestant, something that matters very little most of the time, while Mungo is brought up on the Protestant side of what’s portrayed as a fiercely divided city. The intimacy between mother and son is different too. Agnes Bain in the earlier book kept up appearances, something that could come in handy: if the police happened to be looking for someone responsible for injuring a security guard while looting copper wire, they would be satisfied that the children of this well-turned-out woman could have had nothing to do with it. She might ‘do a flit’, but would clean the house thoroughly first. Mungo’s mother, Maureen Hamilton, known as Mo-Maw, a mother of three teenagers only in her thirties herself, plays truant from the household for days, attaching herself to a man likely to lose interest if he knows she has children. She works on a burger stand rather than feeding her own family, who have to track her down there.
Agnes Bain’s staple drink was lager, or vodka when she could get it, while Mo-Maw chooses fortified wine, sometimes referred to simply as ‘the fortified’. The fortified popular in the Glasgow area is caffeinated as well as alcoholic, in a way that fits her restless temperament. When Mungo makes friends with a Catholic boy, she raises no religious objection, even saying that she ‘winched’ his father (kissed or dated). For a Protestant to drink Buckfast Tonic Wine might seem a marginally ecumenical act, since it was originally made by Benedictine monks in Devon. Not drinking with the enemy, perhaps, but drinking the enemy’s drink – still, with a single bottle containing eleven units of alcohol it’s an inexpensive route to Rimbaud’s ‘dérèglement de tous les sens’.
Shuggie Bain himself was defined by two refusals, though it’s more accurate to call them inabilities – if you don’t know you have a choice in what sense do you have one? One was an inability to reject or abandon his mother, always hoping that this time she would turn towards life and towards him: not a surprising pattern, since he had grown up entirely enclosed in the bleak richness of alcoholic psychology. But he will never replace Stella Artois as her favourite child. The other inability was to put the pieces of himself together as everyone who met him seemed to do at a glance. At a new address, not yet seven, he comes out onto the top step while his mother is introducing herself to the neighbours and announces: ‘We need to talk. I really do not think I can live here. It smells like cabbages and batteries. It’s simply unpossible.’ He’s fastidious, likes toys marketed for girls, is well-spoken, can master complicated dance moves but not walk as a boy is supposed to, however hard he practises. The shower of helpful hints disguised as insults aren’t enough to persuade Shuggie to explore the pariah identity he has been assigned. It’s as if the barbs, though they hurt, lodge just beneath the skin and go no further in. He passes through adolescence more as a stretched child than a man in the making, precocious but somehow lagging in most departments. To the extent that he internalises significant stimuli he also hides them from himself, resisting an absorption of knowledge that would catalyse him into a new sort of being, one outside the world he knows.
This mechanism is seen at an extreme when, towards the end of the book, Shuggie is sought out by a neighbour of the same age, who has ignored him up to that moment. This is a boy put together on a quite different principle, ‘a palette of warm tones all chosen because of how well they went together’. He rhymes with himself right down to his name – Keir Weir. Only a dripping nose and a cold sore debar him from teen pin-up status. He wants Shuggie to do him a favour, a rather demeaning one: keep a girl occupied on an unglamorous double date on the embankment of the M8 while Keir climbs on top of her friend. To prepare him Keir spits ‘a foamy white gobful’ onto a much chewed comb and uses it to give him a centre parting. Shuggie’s first reaction is to recoil. This is very different from the way he is used to encountering the saliva of others, not charged with contempt but promoted to the status of toiletry product. Then Keir holds him in place, to insist on the grooming that may edge this oddity into acceptability as a decoy. ‘It meant nothing to Keir, but Shuggie felt like the back of his eyeballs were sweating.’
Keir provides the finishing touch to this minimalist makeover by chewing some gum then passing it on:
Reluctantly Shuggie took the wad and put it in his mouth. It was slimy and warm, and it tasted of mint and beans and cigarettes. He found he didn’t mind; he rolled it slowly around his mouth and savoured it. He used his tongue to push the last of Keir’s spit up into the dry pocket above his teeth, behind his lips, like it might last longest there.
Later, while Keir is busy with his girl (offering to blow on his hands to warm them before fingering her), Shuggie puts Keir’s chewed comb in his mouth. ‘It smelled like cigarettes and boy’s hair gel. It smelled like Keir.’ Then, to placate his bored date, he offers to comb her hair with this both degraded and exalted object, and so a hairdresser is born. The beauty of the girl’s hair when closely inspected plays a part. ‘The brown was more than just brown. It was a million shades of glossy reds and a melange of dark chestnuts. The hair slid through his fingers like silk, each strand light as gossamer.’ But it’s the charged interaction with Keir that seems decisive: the centre parting that is almost a consecration, the sordid sacrament of the shared chewing gum. There are hints that Shuggie has other contacts, not necessarily consensual, but his actual desires have yet to move south of his neck, and even there his sensations seem to be filed away in cranial spaces that are close to imaginary – the impossible back of his eyeballs, bathed in a secretion from elsewhere, and the hardly more probable dry pocket in a wet mouth.
Mungo Hamilton is put together differently, and so is the book that contains him. He is somewhere between a pretty boy and a handsome young man, sweet-natured despite daily neglect, though highly vulnerable. His flaw is on the surface: a facial tic accompanied by a compulsion to pull at bits of his own skin from cheek or lip. The difference between Mungo and Shuggie is efficiently shown by the scene they share outside the pawnbrokers. A workman storms out of the premises, shouting insults at the pawnbroker, who has offered him so little. Mungo is struck by his beauty. The man tells the pair of them they should find somewhere else to sell their things and offers Shuggie (‘you wi’ the trinkets’) a lift to the West End, where knick-knacks may find a market. He asks Mungo first how old he is and then, ‘Can ye read that sign?’, indicating the side of his van. ‘Can you remember it?’ (‘it’ being the phone number of a plumber and kitchen fitter). ‘Guid. Ah’m Davey. See when you turn 21, can I take you for a drink? Will you gie us a wee phone?’ The scene offers a useful reminder of the discriminatory age of consent in force in the 1990s. The birthday on which a young man was defined as an adult depended on what he happened to want.
Shuggie Bain is dedicated to Stuart’s mother; in a note at the end he says it’s a close portrait, and that he was encouraged by his brother and sister. Agnes is the novel’s central figure and Shuggie plays second fiddle to her tragedy. The book’s power over readers, whether gay, mother-fixated or conditioned by alcohol, lies in the way it seems to preserve emotional pain in as near to an unprocessed state as is compatible with the making of orderly sentences. Young Mungo is much more consciously put together, with two interleaved time schemes, labelled ‘The May After’ and ‘The January Before’. In January, Protestant Mungo becomes involved with a young Catholic called James. In May, he is entrusted by his mother to the care of a couple of men she met at Alcoholics Anonymous, who undertake to show him the wild beauty of Scotland, and to teach him to fish. If this novel was your only source of information you would assume that AA was a drinking club that for some odd reason didn’t serve drink on the premises, and certainly alcohol is the leader of the three-man expedition.
To boil the narrative down: a same-sex Romeo and Juliet intercut with a Caledonian Deliverance, unsettling adventure story set in the violent outdoors. Mungo’s older sister, Jodie, even calls him Romeo when she knows he’s seeing someone, while the boys have a recurrent quibble about which of them is the girl – ‘Yer ma girl now,’ James says at one point – or exchange assertions of ‘Well, you are the woman,’ ‘You are.’ There’s no need for a balcony scene, since Mungo and James can see each other from the windows of their respective flats. James’s home situation is symmetrical with Mungo’s, with a dead mother and an absentee father who works on the oil rigs and bullies him when he’s in residence. James’s refuge is a dovecote and its birds, sanctuary for the gentle in a tough world since at least On the Waterfront. He isn’t in the same class as Mungo as far as looks go, with his big ears and gaps between his teeth large enough for him to stick cigarettes in (four of them as a party trick). At least his teeth are his own, not something that readers of these books can take for granted, in a world where one way of saying someone is a joyless brute is: ‘He wouldnae smile at ye if you bought him a new set of teeth.’
There’s a gain in tension with the withholding from the reader of information about what happened in January while reading about May, though it’s an oddity that the reader is given one major piece of information (about the termination of a pregnancy) that Mungo never discovers. A one-way imbalance of knowledge between reader and character can lend a narrative urgency but when the imbalance goes both ways the result is likely to be epistemological queasiness.
Mungo’s siblings are polar opposites in a way that takes some swallowing. Jodie is organised and academic, determined to get on in the world, only betting against herself by having an affair with one of her teachers. At one point her post-coital reverie is spent itemising the blemishes on his back, keeping separate scores for brown age spots and red skin tags. He is missing all the teeth on the upper left side of his mouth, and she wishes he wouldn’t smile at her over his shoulder. Jodie has no difficulty shredding the anti-Thatcher diatribe he offers in the classroom: ‘What had made [Thatcher] want to neuter the Glaswegian man?’ he asks. He demands a thousand-word essay, to be turned in a week on Monday. Jodie is not impressed:
He sees it as his wee project to stir up the proletariat in the East End, while he drives his Sierra Estate to the Marks and Spencer out at Bishopbriggs and spunks his wages on baguettes and Merlot … I saw him peeling a kiwi fruit in the staff room the other week. So, up your arse with his voice-of-the-working-class nonsense.
She doesn’t tell Mungo that this is the teacher she is sleeping with, and the reader lags behind too. But it’s a formidable piece of rhetoric coming from a teenager.
At eighteen, Hamish Hamilton, the older brother, presumably unaware that he shares a name with a distinguished London publisher, is a feral gang leader comparable to Graham Greene’s Pinkie or Irvine Welsh’s Begbie, and already the father of a 15-year-old’s child. Siblings close in age react against each other, to be sure, but it isn’t easy to believe in a family in which a studious schoolgirl rubs shoulders with a drug-dealing devotee of ultraviolence, ‘a general, a stone-washed emperor’ mustering his troops, not even sincere in his sectarian hatred but a ddicted to the sadism it excuses.
There’s not a word said against heterosexuality in Stuart’s novels, but there hardly needs to be. What we’re shown are joyless rituals. On one occasion, girls are used as goalposts in a football game. ‘Every now and then the ball would ricochet off the face of one of these girls, and she would fake tears until the required boy came and clamped his chapped mouth over hers.’ This is a grim exchange economy, with girls from a young age inspecting what they’ve been offered (a stolen bar of soap, a walnut whip) and sighing in disappointment, though still consenting to be fingered. The boys’ logic is that you should make the most of the time before the girls can conceive. But the outcome of that logic is the saddling of young lives with burdens that need bottles and nappies. Ha-Ha babysits after a fashion, ‘chronic with adrenaline’ from sampling the speed he sells and hypnotised by The Clangers on television.
Stuart is developing a taste for the set piece, seen at its best in an early scene of mayhem orchestrated by Ha-Ha which Mungo is forced to join, a risky raid on a builder’s yard undertaken more for kicks than profit. Less successful is a later confrontation between the brothers, in which Mungo holds the baby between them as an undersized human shield while Ha-Ha alternates between murmuring endearments at her (‘Who’s a gorgeous wee thing? … Yer getting a wee fat tummy just like yer mammy, aren’t ye … Ooh yer Uncle Mungus thinks he’s a right hardman’) and threatening to shut James in his dovecote and set fire to it if Mungo ever sees him again (‘James Jamieson will scream for his mammy but he will roast’). Obstacles in the path of young lovers are a genre requirement, but threats of murder seem over the top – at this point Hamish doesn’t even know that more than friendship is involved. The scene comes dangerously close to tipping into comedy when Hamish adds talcum powder to the heap of speed, making it smell as if it was sourced from Mothercare.
When Mungo and James have their first kiss, little more than a peck on the lips in the open air, it’s described as being ‘like hot buttered toast when you were starving. It was that good.’ The young men in the Wolfgang Tillmans photograph on the book’s cover look as if they’re eating a three-course meal off each other’s faces, and it’s hardly surprising that the publishers should favour the commercial appeal of an image from the steamier side of rapture. In fact what is distinctive about Young Mungo is the slow and delicate way the lovers get used to each other. It’s not a matter of dams breaking but of portcullises being raised inch by inch. Neither is a stranger to excitement or longing: in his mother’s lifetime James used to call a gay chatline, realising only after her death that since she paid the premium charges on the phone bill she must have known what he was doing, while Mungo availed himself of Ha-Ha’s pornography, once guiltily ironing the pages to smooth out the creases made when he folded female anatomies out of view. The novelty is trust.
The most adventurous parts of the book are the least dramatic, scenes in the Jamiesons’ flat where the teenagers tune in to each other in a trance more chaste than carnal, minor explorations that make Mungo feel sleepy and safe rather than aroused. Their directionless foreplay takes place almost outside time: ‘They lay with their mouths together and Mungo cupped his nose in the divot of James’s cheek, and then they led each other in a silent ramble, one would change the direction and the other would follow, over and over until an arm went dead, or the microwave pinged.’ This is a new world for James as much as for Mungo. ‘James walked his fingers across Mungo’s belly. He allowed himself a daydream as he traced his imaginary walker across the pale stomach, into the gullies of his hips and across the rise in his breastbone. Mungo’s skin was a snowy plain, a landscape of unblemished emptiness.’ The exploration is emotional as well as physical, or more emotional than physical, with an initial timid tenderness becoming more robust as it shifts into an affection laced with pretended insults.
Mungo in particular has been encouraged to conspire against himself by his warped family relationships:
Violence always preceded affection. Mungo didn’t know any other way. Mo-Maw would crack her Scholl sandal off his back, purpling bruises curdling his cream skin, then she would realise she had gone too far and pull him in to the softness of her breast. Jodie would scold and demean his poorly wired brain and then, feeling guilty, make a heaped bowl of warm Weetabix and white sugar. Hamish would wind him with a fist and sit on his chest. When Mungo started calling for help, Hamish would clamp his hand over his face, that hot hand whose fingers covered his eye sockets and whose meat crammed into his open mouth. They would sit there for a long time, Hamish crushing the wind out of him, until Mungo acquiesced, easy as flattened grass, soft as an Easter lamb.
In a reversal of the assumptions underlying Clause 28 of the Local Government Act, which prohibited the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, it’s family relations that stand in the way of the sexual self-understanding of young people. What are the odds of someone like Mungo being able to overcome his negative programming if he waits another half-decade? The laws that masquerade as his protectors would rather see him mangled than whole.
The Glasgow of Young Mungo is untouched by the 1980s Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign. It isn’t the Glasgow of the School of Art, of the Burrell Collection or Kelvingrove Gallery. It isn’t a city with a gay scene, respectable or otherwise, though the book’s action takes place only a few years before Edwin Morgan – later appointed the city’s first makar – read a poem at the opening of the Glasgow Gay and Lesbian Centre. (Margaret Thatcher may be impossible to displace as a totem of oppression, but John Major has been prime minister for a couple of years by the time the book begins.) The only actual gay character in the book, if you exclude the passing dreamboat in his van, is Chickie Jamieson, an elderly, unthreatening and neuter-seeming neighbour of the Hamiltons. Chickie, who devoted himself to his mother, has learned to exist in an environment of constant low to medium-level harassment, making sure he invests in strong locks, but he has fond romantic memories and gives his blessing to Mungo’s relationship without having met his significant other: ‘Jameses are very constant people. He sounds like a person you can trust.’ It’s a sentimental sketch of a life too distant from the author for him to be able to inhabit.
Homosexuality is constantly referred to in Mungo’s world and constantly execrated but never actually discussed. An exception is a little speech by St Christopher, the AA name of one of the alcoholics put in charge of Mungo, who makes a link with the upper classes, not an unusual suggestion in itself, but the angle is new:
Well, they’re aw at it. It’s what us boys do when we’re alone. A bit of fun. ’Asides, it’s a bit of tradition with some folk. You’re jist not supposed to mention it when you’re poor, but when ye’re rich, haw, haw, haw. It’s what all they posh boys do the gether. Oxford is full of it. All they boarding schools. They all love a bit o’ casual buggering down there.
This analysis seems to say that the behaviour itself is evenly distributed across classes. It’s just that posh people don’t keep their mouths shut, breaking the first (and second) rule of Fight Club.
Books about working-class gay experience are almost inevitably written by those who have achieved the social equivalent of escape velocity, usually by way of education. Damian Barr’s memoir, Maggie & Me (2013), recounts a life not very different in its outline from Shuggie Bain’s (the writers were born two months apart): Catholic mother, Protestant father (who worked at Ravenscraig steelworks), broken home. As he tells it, on the evening after his mother left his father, Barr saw the TV footage of Thatcher being pulled from the rubble of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, indestructible as a Cyberman from Doctor Who. Each chapter of the book has a quotation from Thatcher as an epigraph, a device that at first seems intended to provide ironic counterpoint.
As his mother descends into drink, Barr gives a striking description of where the fortified leads: ‘When vomited up – as it always is – it hangs in glossy, molasses-like strings, reeking like turpentine, that you’ve got to pull from your mouth.’ Although lavishly equipped with nicknames as a boy (Gaymian, Dame Barr, Barbie), Barr wasn’t entirely squashed down into his assigned role. His status could rise unpredictably, as when he survived intact after being thrown off a slag heap inside a wardrobe. He couldn’t live down being the wrong shape (tall and skinny) and wearing the wrong clothes, though he found sexual partners at school, including an attractive boy called Mark. Barr was bullied and abused by his mother’s new man, Logan, something he recounts crisply and without self-pity. Logan made him clean up the mess with his bare hands when he vomited, and used a rocking horse as a weapon – ‘and that’s the last of my baby teeth.’ Crispness and lack of self-pity seem less appropriate when the subject is a profound psychological shift, towards protecting an abuser: ‘I’m not naturally clumsy but I’ve learned to be. No one expects the lanky asthmatic jessy to be athletic and I don’t disappoint, tripping over mats and nearly hanging myself on the ropes. This way no one asks questions about the bruises and black eyes.’ It was only when Logan left a bloody handprint on a sheet that Damian’s mother walked out on him.
Mungo and James can imagine leaving Glasgow, but can’t imagine where an underage male couple might make a living and a life together. Barr was lucky to fix on his own destination relatively early, when as a member of the school debating team he saw the sights of Brighton. Towards the end of Maggie & Me the Thatcher references turn out to have been something of a double bluff, and the hero’s progress becomes a matter not just of survival but of virtue rewarded – there’s even an anonymous benefactor. Feeling a flutter of panic at leaving Brighton, Barr makes a return visit to his home town for the funeral of the lover of his schooldays, a suicide, and reads out a eulogy calculated to offend the dead man’s family, ‘watching their faces turn white as I talked about how much I loved Mark, how he struggled to be gay in a world of bigots, how I would miss my Sister’. His private opinion is less sympathetic: ‘Be strong, Maggie told us all. Get educated. Get away. That’s what she said. I listened … Mark didn’t.’ This remarkably dry-hearted verdict doesn’t consider the different choices offered to an athlete and all-rounder, an ideal fit for the straight world if seen from the outside, and to a lanky asthmatic jessy.
Barr owes no debt of gratitude to his family or the community in which he was born. Why shouldn’t he declare himself a winner and side with others he thinks are like him? Near the end of the book he mentions an interview he did at the Athenaeum Club with a Tory grandee who told him: ‘I think she would have liked you very much indeed.’ Thatcher becomes Barr’s ‘other mother’: ‘I want you to be proud of me.’ He itemises her initiatives for good and ill. ‘Yes, you created Clause 28,’ but it ‘wasn’t very successful in my case’. He must realise that this is a travesty. He was gay already, and Clause 28 meant that when he tried to tell his teachers what his life was like as an abused and traumatised schoolboy they didn’t dare listen. Of course he wasn’t prevented from being gay, but it was illegal for the people charged with his welfare to give him assistance in the internalising of a stigmatised identity. On the other side of the scales, Thatcher ‘created Channel 4, which showed me my first gay kiss’. Setting aside the overstatement of her agency in the setting up of Channel 4, it’s easy to understand the importance of the first gay kiss on television, broadcast in 1989, for someone born in 1976. But that was actually on BBC1, on EastEnders. Channel 4’s claim to fame was the kiss between Anna Friel and Nicola Stephenson on Brookside in 1994, more likely to make an impression on a straight teenage boy than a gay one.
It’s considered good manners for those who have been traumatised to play down the damage done to them, but in Maggie & Me there’s a tonal instability that can seem close to pathological. The breeziness that had shock value when deployed to establish that extreme situations can come to seem normal to the victimised (‘and that’s the last of my baby teeth’) becomes suspect when overused. There’s an account of Barr being raped by a stranger in the scullery of his mother’s house that is excruciating, not because it deals with a violent sexual assault but because it’s played for laughs. His head is pushed into the freezer: ‘By the way, I can now reveal the answer to that age-old question – the light does go off when the freezer door closes.’ He reads the ingredients on the label of a packet of fish fingers (‘Breadcrumbs, maltodextrin, sunset yellow E110’) as his attacker thrusts away. He doesn’t know how much time has passed, and suggests that ‘there should be a little picture of me on the inside of the door with an indicator of how long I’ll keep in here before going off.’ The account ends with a sort of punchline, when Barr’s mother offers to make him fish fingers for his tea. I’m not saying the incident is untrue, but it’s not truthfully told. It’s no sort of solution to disown trauma in the act of recounting it.
In her 2009 book Ties That Bind, Sarah Schulman explored the fact, so obvious as to be somehow invisible, that members of sexual minorities are rarely brought up by their own kind. They must construct an identity from sources outside the family, and what they learn at home is unlikely to be helpful. Barr records telling his mother the names he is being called, and she says he should ignore them, that people are cruel and stupid, but ‘she never says they’re wrong.’ Schulman argues that gay people absorb a lot of emotional pain: ‘because we love our parents, we make excuses or try to help them expand their thinking, often without fully acknowledging the impact of their prejudices on our emotional lives.’ In a pleasing reformulation of Thatcher’s notorious 1987 comment about there being ‘no such thing’ as society (used as the epigraph to Barr’s first chapter), Schulman suggests that ‘what we have previously called “society”’ is actually the collective – and in this case toxic – interaction of families. Gay people, she argues, are grateful for crumbs of acceptance, looking on their own compromised inclusion as miraculously positive.
If there’s a hell below Shuggie Bain’s, it must be the Picardy village where Édouard Louis (born 1992) grew up, as he recounts in The End of Eddy, published in French in 2014. Eddy Bellegueule (Louis’s birth name) had a high-pitched voice and gestures that were deemed effeminate. He didn’t walk as boys are meant to. The village where his family lived was tiny, and the only source of employment was a brass factory. For a change it was the father who drank – mainly pastis, but by the litre. He was violent, but had vowed not to repeat his own father’s physical assaults. He punched holes in the walls instead, a deflection of aggression that can’t have been much more reassuring than a blow to the face.
Louis starts his book – it was called a novel, though by most criteria it would be judged a memoir – with a description of being ritually spat on at school, aged ten, by a pair of older boys, a tall redhead and a short hunchback. ‘The gob of spit dripped slowly down my cheek, thick and yellow, like the noisy mucus that obstructs the throats of old people or people who are ill, with a strong, sickening smell to it.’ Even without the added vileness of viscosity, colour and aroma the act of spitting on someone is rich in meaning. Raymond Tallis analyses it in The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Portrait of Your Head (2008):
Spitting on someone is the ultimate insult, compared with which name-calling, however inflammatory and degrading, seems merely metaphorical. Spittle originates from the cavity where words are factored, so that spitting partakes of linguistic signs. The sign is arbitrary, in the sense that linguists use, of not looking like its meaning. It is, however, without grammar. It has the brutal immediacy of a fist on the face. It is halfway between a curse and a blow. But it has a particularly sinister aspect. It is a forced intimacy, a little rape: the spat-upon is directly exposed to material drawn from the intimate recesses of another’s body. The spittle is more powerfully disgusting if it approximates to the condition of sputum by an admixture of mucus and, worse, hawked up from the private passages of the other’s head.
When perpetrated by two people, the assault seems to express the verdict of a whole community.
Shuggie Bain had his own experience of degradation by spittle, when all the sisters in a neighbouring family spat through the letterbox, ‘big long gobbets of sugary phlegm that stuck on the metal flap and slid slowly down the inside of the wood’. Anxious to protect his mother’s good carpet, he collected the sputum on a rag, and when the girls’ brother offered to kiss him through the letterbox by way of apology, an offer rather too good to be true, he pushed the rag out through the slot, folded so that the greenest, stickiest part was on the outside.
The verbal prelude to the spitting on Eddy was a question: ‘You’re the faggot, right?’ Louis describes the word as being inscribed on him permanently. Something that was not foreseen by those agitating for a new understanding of same-sex desire was that as the strength of the signal increased, so did the noise surrounding it. In the 21st century there’s hardly a business that doesn’t endorse rainbow values, and hardly a child at primary school who doesn’t already know that gay people are funny and disgusting. In 1945, though, William Maxwell in his novel The Folded Leaf could show a world still able to take male intimacy at face value. Lymie
lay there, relaxed and drowsy, aware of the cold outside the covers, and of the warmth coming to him from Spud, and Spud’s odour, which was not stale or sweaty or like the odour of any other person. Then he moved his right foot until the outer part of the instep came in contact with Spud’s bare toes, and from this one point of reality he swung out safely into darkness, into no sharing whatever.
Lymie and Spud are students who share a bed, but their intimacy arouses no concern in those around them. Nor does either of them feel any doubt about its wholesomeness. When the two of them are out walking, Lymie slips his hand into the pocket of Spud’s coat, where Spud’s hand will meet and interlace with it. Spud has a girlfriend without the young men’s bond being disturbed and Lymie has a female admirer of his own, though she has the forlorn name of Hope. Maxwell’s book was almost the last hurrah for such innocence, or lack of self-awareness. In 1945, Dr Kinsey was already at work on a report which if it didn’t reveal the worm in the bud certainly shone a bright light on the undergrowth.
Gay men beginning to act on their desires in the 1950s faced any number of difficulties and dangers but could benefit from a certain invisibility. Their status was unspeakable, but at least it was unspoken. Middle-class men might live in a world of hints about being different, or sensitive, or musical, rather than face outright abuse. Working-class men might or might not encounter rejection: friends calling for the miner’s son Tom Wakefield at his family home in Cannock in the early 1950s might be told that ‘our Tom’s down by the canal, trying his luck.’ Shuggie Bain, Damian Barr and Eddy Bellegueule are all labelled faggot, homo, poof, queer, jessy and so on, creatures that have no characteristics other than debasement, long before they have a chance to condense an identity around their actual desires. The young Barr is aware that Logan’s violence has a deeper purpose: ‘He knows I’m different and sets about making me hate myself before I know myself.’ James in Young Mungo understands that if his inner life becomes known he will lose access to it: ‘They would have a hundred names for him before he had a name for himself.’ Those are the hundred names that Eddy Bellegueule inhabits. After his initial humiliation in a quiet corridor he returned there for further abuse, the logic being that at least no one would learn what was going on if it happened out of sight. After his two tormentors struck their last blow they just wandered off, already talking about something else, and this hurt him (‘I mattered less to them than they mattered to me’), as if by his abjection and his forced smile he could turn repeated assaults into an equal relationship.
In this world what matters is not what someone does, or even what he is, but whether he looks the part. Eddy becomes involved in acts of group sex in a shed, more or less consensual on his part (peer pressure blurs those boundaries). He has the sensation of turning into what he has always been. Yet when these activities are discovered, all the shame attaches to Eddy. (This isn’t a question of role – Louis makes clear he was not necessarily the penetrated party.) It turns out that if you’re straight, or at least not a faggot, you can have plenty of gay sex as a tourist, as it were. ‘Pretending to be gay was their way of showing that they really weren’t. You would really have to not be a fag to be able to spend an evening pretending to be one without running the risk of attracting insults.’
Eddy can neither swallow nor spit out the bolus of hatred represented by the word ‘faggot’ (‘pédé’ in the original). Whenever the word is flung at him he takes care to seem surprised, as if it wasn’t a constant definition imposed from outside. He uses the word himself, either in denial of its application to him or to victimise someone else who looks the part. He teaches his younger brother that homosexuality leads to ‘damnation, hell and disease’. Not once but twice he gets a girlfriend, forcing himself to kiss her and feeling disgust when she responds, but he is unable to carry through the project of normalisation by deceit. In this way every relationship is falsified. Both Barr and Stuart’s Shuggie find themselves pushed towards miming heterosexuality, but with happier results. Barr finds in his schoolmate Heather someone with whom he can have a mutual protection society (he’s a poof and she’s a virgin, almost as terrible a secret) while Shuggie develops a real friendship with Leanne, herself gay – and with an alcoholic mother of her own – even though Keir Weir originally recruited him to distract her while he got busy with her friend.
Like Barr, Louis made his escape from a punitive environment by the route of education. It wasn’t that he believed in his own potential: he just couldn’t bear the idea of going to the nearby lycée where he would inevitably meet his two torturers again. By studying theatre he would be able to attend a more selective institution in Amiens. Near the end of the school year his drama group put on a show (written by him) in the village hall. He noticed to his horror that his tormentors were in the audience. After the character he played had had his turn in the spotlight they stood up and applauded, yelling: ‘Bravo, Eddy, Bravo!’ The section breaks off without giving his reaction. Humiliating and beating him had only been something to do at break. Perhaps they had exercised the ready amnesia of opportunistic sadism. Socially sanctioned hatred is by its nature conformist and will find some target, some dumping ground for rage. As Sarah Schulman puts it, ‘perpetrators scapegoat the gay person because they believe that no one cares. They interpret the silence of others as a reward of approval.’ There’s even a possibility, not considered by Louis, that as a redhead and hunchback they have themselves been bullied for things they can’t help and want to pass on their pain.
Louis refers in passing to having attended the ‘École Normale’, without adding the ‘Supérieure’ which would identify it as one of the most revered academic institutions in France, going on from there to the École des hautes études en sciences sociales. It’s as if someone from a sink school became a fellow of All Souls. He brings this academic history intermittently to bear on his own background, describing his cousin Sylvain as having been ‘excluded’ from education, as if the problem was the high cost of textbooks rather than Sylvain’s relentless criminality. In a subsequent book, Who Killed My Father (2018), Louis analyses the social conditions and low life expectancy of the underclass to which his father belongs. The overlap of material between the two books produces a rhetorical flourish: ‘Should I not repeat myself until they listen to us? To make them listen to us? Should I not cry out?’
This ‘us’ is new. What solidarity can arise from a childhood of internalised hatred? The opening words of The End of Eddy, after all, were ‘From my childhood I have no happy memories’ – surely a conscious echo of Sartre’s memoir, Words, which began: ‘I hate my childhood and everything that remains of it.’ There may not be happy memories newly revealed but there is a definite change of emphasis, with a father capable of administering hugs and treats as well as insults and humiliations. As people grow older it’s natural that they should view their own childhood differently – children see their parents as agents, after all, not as acted on, as everyone is. There’s no obligation for the two perspectives to marry neatly, either, to produce a stereoscopic image with more depth than either of its constituents. It’s just that the broadly theorised version is so much less convincing. Things that were daily realities experienced by Eddy Bellegueule become abstractions for Édouard Louis.
It’s a mysterious mechanism by which the designated pariah becomes an apologist for the little corner of society that systematically degraded him. How does it work? By broadening the focus, I suppose, until the family that constituted the entirety of his childhood experience becomes generalised as a victim of multiple power relations. ‘Hatred of homosexuality = poverty.’ That would-be aphorism isn’t a lot to show for years of study in the social sciences. Take away the – indefensible – collapsing of logical steps that is required to produce such an ideological formula, and the argument is not startling: those who imagine they are choosing a rebellious model of masculinity whose features include violence, uncontrolled drinking, risk-taking, self-neglect, misogyny and the loathing of racial and sexual minorities in fact collude with an oppressive system that is content for them to survive their working lifetimes only briefly, if at all. Isn’t this a recantation of the earlier book, dressed up as a call for action? Bellegueule senior may have been politically weak but he was personally cruel to those weaker than him. No doubt social forces narrowed his options, but they didn’t require him to withhold for a month Eddy’s acceptance letter from the Amiens lycée, or to give him hours of terror by telling him on New Year’s Eve 1999 (Eddy was seven) that an asteroid was going to strike the Earth at midnight, killing everyone. Social forces did not require him, while he and his friends were jeering at a gay man on a reality television show, to greet Eddy using the same name as the laughing stock on screen – ‘Steevy’.
Intellectual power has its uses, but it doesn’t enable its possessor to operate independently of emotional damage, though it may convince him he is doing just that. Where Barr’s triumphant progress to a life in Brighton allows him the fantasy of having left all his wounds behind, Louis, despite the severing from the past symbolised by his change of name, feels uneasy in his new role, referring to himself as an ‘arrogant class renegade’. Gayness as escape hatch or class treason – they’re the same thing seen from different ends of the telescope. When he arrives at the lycée Eddy is amazed at the softness of bourgeois bodies and manners, even more so when he reaches the École Normale (‘all those feminine bodies belonging to middle-class intellectuals’). He wonders if his history might not have anything to do with sexuality at all, more a matter of having ‘a bourgeois body that was trapped in the world of my childhood’. This may be an attempt at quizzical humour, but even at ten he was attracted by bodies like those of his older contemporaries, bodies ‘that already bore the marks of their social class’, developed by the manual labour of helping their fathers cut and stack wood (as he does not) and by the endless football games he doesn’t join.
It’s dismaying to see Louis return to the subject of his background in a sort of abasement, still trying to atone for having been hurt, wearing the fixed smile with which bullied children await their tormentors. More dismaying still because the results are of such limited insight: ‘A friend of mine says it’s the children who mould their parents and not the other way round.’ The ‘a friend of mine says …’ formula is distinctly coy, designed to protect the author if the response is (as it should be): ‘Your friend is an idiot.’ Forget about Shuggie Bain, Young Mungo, Maggie & Me – has this friend of yours read The End of Eddy?
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.