Tag Archives: Jimmy Barnes

Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain (Picador 2020)

This is a Book Group book.

Before the meeting

Shuggie Bain is the story of a boy who grows up in poverty in Glasgow, the youngest of three children. His mother, Agnes, is an alcoholic who is brutally treated by her husband, Shuggie’s father, and then abandoned by him. Once a stunning beauty, she struggles to maintain appearances as she descends into increasingly desperate poverty, alienated from other women and sexually exploited, often violently, by men. From an early age, Shuggie takes on the burden of looking after her, protecting her and trying to make things better. The downward trend is reversed at times when Agnes joins AA, finds part-time employment and has a relationship with a decent man, but there is never any doubt about how her story will end, or that she will take Shuggie down with her. Through it all, Shuggie is singled out by adults and other children as different, not a proper boy – it’s a story of growing up gay.

The Wikipedia entry on Douglas Stuart gives an account of his childhood that could easily be a plot summary of the book. It’s surely no coincidence that ‘Shuggie’ rhymes with ‘Dougie’ (though maybe not in Australian pronunciation, if ‘Shug’ is short for ‘sugar’ as in The Color Purple), and the opening line of the acknowledgements refers to the author’s mother ‘and her struggle’. So the book presents itself as a fictionalised version of the author’s own childhood. As such it’s a valiant work of imagination, wrangling terrible experience into words. I admire it, I read it compulsively, I must have been moved by the horror because when I reached the book’s one moment of genuine tenderness I felt an extraordinary sense of a weight lifting from my mind, even though I knew it was only temporary. But …

… if I hadn’t been reading it for the book group, I would have stopped at page 37, where Agnes is beaten and raped by Big Shug. Really, do I need any more images of that sort lodged in my brain? I did read on, encouraged by the fact that the book won the Booker Prize in 2020, and I’m glad I did, but I found the insistence on the misery of Agnes and every other character in the book disturbing. I can explain what I mean by way of a tiny moment fairly early on. Agnes has regained consciousness after a night of drunkenness, destruction and violence:

Agnes wrapped her lips around the cold metal tap and gulped the fluoride-heavy water, panting and gasping like a thirsty dog. 

(page 72)

She has been beaten up, raped, and shunned. She has done appalling things in her drunken state. Now, the tone of this sentence implies, she has reached such a state of degradation that she drinks directly from a tap, and not only that, but the water has been fluoridated! Where I come from, you don’t have to be subhuman to drink fluoridated water from a cold tap. It feels as if the narrator, if not the book itself, has lost perspective, and I lose faith. It could be that this sentence is a momentary false note. After all, as Randall Jarrell said, a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it. But my uneasy sense that perhaps this was a work of Misery Porn persisted for the rest of the book, even while I engaged intensely with the characters.

Between reading the book and the Book Group meeting: I took the book, and my unease about it, seriously enough to do some counterpoint reading – that is, to read writing that deals with similar material from different points of view. Interestingly enough, the other reading led me to a better appreciation of Shuggie Bain.

1. Jimmy Barnes’s memoir Working Class Boy (link to my blog post here). The early chapters tell of a childhood in a family and community in Glasgow, where alcohol-fuelled violence is as prevalent as in Shuggie’s. Young Jimmy could easily have been one of the boys who terrorised young Shuggie.

They are different kinds of book, of course. Jimmy Barnes can expect his readers to know him as a rock star, and to read the memoir as his back story. As he tells it, the young Jimmy was able to escape from the violence at home, and he went pretty wild on drugs and alcohol himself. Writing as a grandfather, he repents the errors of his youth and writes with generosity and forgiveness of his parents.

The narrator of Shuggy Bain doesn’t have that kind of safe distance from the events he describes. The novel has a visceral immediacy. The account of Agnes’s degradation is told from a point of view not far removed from Shuggie’s own, so the reader is aligned with the helpless child bystander. If the narrator has any distance at all, I imagine it’s that of an adult Shuggie who has escaped Glasgow, and looks back in horror at what he witnessed and endured.

2. Wendy McCarthy on the ABC’s Conversations podcast describes her own response when she saw her father lying drunk in the gutter.

This boy said to me, ‘You know your father’s a drunk,’ and I said, ‘Yep,’ and just kept walking. I learnt something then: I’m not going to carry his shame.

(The link is here. The quote is at 14 minutes and 20 seconds.)

Wendy McCarthy was already at high school when that happened, and had had time to build her inner resources. Shuggie Bain is a novel about a child who didn’t have that chance, and who was caught in the vortex of his mother’s shame.

3. Kit Kelen’s Book of Mother (blog post to come). On the face of it, this poetry collection has nothing in common with Shuggie Bain. Mostly, it plunges the reader into the experience of living with the poet’s mother’s dementia. The son/poet-narrator is an adult, but the poetry captures a kind of mental vertigo that has a lot in common with the way Shuggie is drawn into his mother’s struggles. Comparing the books, I realised Shuggie isn’t just a dreadfully abused child, but he’s also a person of extraordinary heroism. When everyone else abandons Agnes or – in the case of Shuggie’s siblings – escapes her destructive gravitational pull, Shuggie stays, loving her and trying to make things better for her, until the bitter end.

After the meeting: We met in person, all but three who were respectively on the road with a theatrical production, visiting New York for major family event, and home with non-Covid sick children. As usual we ate well and eclectically. Among other things we discussed the role of table tennis for one of us in the process of retiring from regular work; the joy for another at having no income to declare as he too is in the process of hanging up his tools; and our shared relief at having a government that isn’t just about slogans, announcements and cruelty.

The Chooser kicked off conversation about the book by saying that if he’s known what it was about he wouldn’t have picked it, but he’d trusted his wife’s recommendation. I think we were unanimously glad he had, as the book provoked animated, and at times intensely personal conversation.

Many, if not most, had had to overcome initial reluctance that ranged from my own borderline prissiness to not wanting to dredge up memories of a major alcohol-related disruption in his own life.

A number of the chaps said they’d had to take breaks from reading it – one said a dull work on (I think) the energy grid was a perfect palate cleanser. One of the night’s three absentees texted that it was like Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life ‘but without the gratuitous violence etc.’ Another absentee sent us a long text part way through the evening, and encapsulated the general sentiment in his summing up: ‘In the end it was really good but hard going. I’m glad it’s over but glad I finished.’

A number of things were identified as having won us over. We agreed that it’s beautifully written – one man said he kept stopping to reread sentences for the sheer pleasure. It feels real – you believe that the author has experienced something close to Shuggie’s life. The narrative has a strong forward drive: as readers we share Shuggie’s hope that Agnes will snap out of the downward spiral, or at least we want it desperately even though we know it’s futile – and we keep turning the pages. The moments of lightness, tenderness and spirited resistance (there are more than the one I remembered) are beacons in the gloom. And we feel strongly for all the characters: Shuggie’s older brother Leekie won more than one heart, and (for me at least) Eugene, the one man who genuinely loves Agnes, tore my heart out when he became the unintentional agent of her destruction.

It’s a terrific book. Next meeting’s Chooser has been urged to choose something cheerful.

Jimmy Barnes’s Working Class Boy

Jimmy Barnes, Working Class Boy (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)

This is a terrific book.

These days, Jimmy Barnes turns up on social media as a genial grandfather who makes music with his large family for the pleasure of a nation beleaguered by Covid and other ills. Once he was a hard living, hard-drinking rock star whose songs ‘Working Class Man’ and ‘Khe Sanh’, the latter sung as front man of Cold Chisel, have anthem status.

At the end of Working Class Boy, he more or less promises us the story of how he made the transition from then to now. This book is a prequel, a back story: ‘How I became Jimmy Barnes.’ It begins in poverty-stricken Glasgow where alcohol-fuelled violence is the norm in the streets and in the home. It takes us through the small boy’s emigration with his dysfunctional family to South Australia, where the town of Elizabeth is hardly less violent or alcohol-riven than Glasgow. It leaves off as Jimmy, now as addicted to alcohol and other substances as the next knockabout young man, sets off for Armidale with the newly formed Cold Chisel, not with any hope of peace or stability, but at least with the possibility of making it as a rock band.

It’s a harrowing story, but it doesn’t ask for pity, and it doesn’t feel as if it aims to shock. The writer uses his great skill as a yarn-spinner to keep the narrative alive, at the same time never letting the reader lose sight of his serious purpose, as he articulates it in the Acknowledgements:

There’s a lot of my past that I wanted to push out of my memory and never see again. But I couldn’t. I tried to drown my past in every possible way, but as long as it was festering inside me I could never really move on. My childhood affected every step I took over the rest of my life. It twisted the way I thought and the way I interacted with normal human beings. Eventually I realised that these wounds needed to be brought out in the open and aired if I ever wanted them to heal.

So I started trying to write things down.

(page 359)

I read Working Class Boy at the Emerging Artist’s suggestion, when I told her about Shuggie Bain. I’d read that novel for the Book Group (blog post to come in a couple of weeks), and was uneasy about its insistence on the main woman character’s wretchedness and victimhood amid alcohol-fuelled violence and poverty in Glasgow – was it a kind of misery porn? ‘Jimmy Barnes’s childhood was in Glasgow,’ the ER said.

It turned out that reading the books in close sequence increased my appreciation of both of them. I won’t talk about Shuggie Bain here.

None of Jimmy Barnes’s characters is a straightforward victim. He doesn’t hold back from telling us about his own violence, and sexism. He makes no excuses, but gives us glimpses of the inner struggles, and terrors, that he was dealing with at the time of his worst behaviour. The effect is that when he tells us about his mother’s and father’s violent moments, we aren’t invited to sit in judgement. It’s understood that they too are wrestling with demons. I was struck by his account of how his first son, David Campbell, was conceived and born when Jimmy was just 16. This episode of teenage sex and consequences can’t have been easy to write, but Barnes tells it with generosity to all involved, including David when he learned the truth of his origins. Then he says:

I don’t need to say much more about this time. Not to you guys anyway.

(Page 317)

How’s that for telling the reader to respect the writer’s boundaries?

Comparing the two books made me appreciate the quality of Barnesie’s humour (I hope it’s OK to call him that). Even as he laments the terrible damage wrought by alcohol and poverty, he celebrates the wit and resilience, and the sense of community, of the people involved. I came away from the scenes in Glasgow wanting to see a lot more more of the Glaswegians, though I’d prefer to be out of striking range. Many of his adolescent exploits have a terrific derring-do about them. There’s the time he drove a half a dozen drunken mates to the drive-in cinema in a car with no brakes, or the occasion when he and a few of his mates took LSD and got drunk before turning up at a party given by ‘a quiet young guy’ from the foundry, to find that the young guy ‘was a drag queen in his spare time’, and the party a great success.

The book pulls off the minor miracle of taking the reader along on this wild ride, feeling the excitement of it, but not losing sight of the human cost both for the writer and the other young men like him, and for the many people – girls, women, strangers – they damaged. I’m not drawn to celebrity autobiographies, but Jimmy Barnes’s Working Class Man (HarperCollinsAustralia 2018) just made it onto my TBR list.