book review

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart Review by Ally Muterspaw

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Review by Ally Muterspaw

Grove Press
Publication: April 2022
400 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-8021-5955-7

When Trauma Plotlines Feel Inevitable: A review of Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

If you have read or ever heard of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, the recipient of the 2020 Booker Prize, or are familiar with the Scottish-American writer, then you might expect a specific set of social circumstances. Like Shuggie Bain, Stuart’s sophomore novel, Young Mungo, tells a story of systemic poverty, toxic masculinity, and gay/queer sexuality. In 1980s Glasgow, male-led Catholic and Protestant gangs run the city, teen pregnancy is rampant, and youth are granted little aspirations outside of romance and sex. The novel’s protagonist, Mungo Hamilton, doesn’t fit into this environment; he is a sensitive 15-year-old boy, aptly named after the city’s benevolent Saint. When Protestant Mungo begins to fall in love with the Catholic James, the only emotional outlet the boys have places their lives at risk. The novel is told in two separate storylines; one in the present, where Mungo is on a fishing trip with two men, while the primary narrative relays Mungo’s burgeoning relationship with James, along with the social pressure to join the gang led by his brother, Hamish. The timelines begin to converge in a devastating turn of events for the teen boys.

Economic suffering in Young Mungo reflects the everyday sufferings of global capitalism; emotional apathy is central to the social dynamics of Glasgow. The novel is set in the first few years of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure, whose defunding of manual labor projects in Scotland is still felt in the present day. Labor jobs steadily disappear, living tenements are barely habitable, and many young people like Hamish are granted no hope for a safe and stable life. The women in Mungo’s life, his mother (called Mo-Maw) and sister Jodie, recognize his fragile, but unique qualities. Incapable of fulfilling the expectations of violent masculinity and compulsory heterosexuality, Mungo feels that his only chance of happiness is outside of Glasgow. Under the conditions of being outed, Mungo can never return home if he leaves with James. The burden of this choice pressures the protagonist throughout the novel.

Stuart’s environment is remarkable to read, particularly with the balance of nuance and empathy he creates through the characters’ questionably ethical behavior. In the throes of surviving everyday life, aspirations diminish. The author presents this nuance through Jodie’s obligated role as Mungo’s obligated caregiver. When her life is complicated by an unexpected pregnancy through the consequences of a financially enticing affair, she decides to get an abortion. In perhaps one of the first times in her life, Jodie prioritizes her happiness and understands the burden of young women’s opportunities that are placed aside to prioritize the men in their lives. Jodie’s decision is a radical one, especially in an environment where abortion was rare, and difficult for minors to access. Jodie’s radical choices solidify the dangers of surviving Glasgow.

The past tense narrative sets the provenance of the novel’s socioeconomic turmoil. At the same time, the other storyline takes place in “The May After” the expected outcome of James and Mungo being outed. Mungo is sent by his mother to “man up” on a fishing trip in Northern Scotland with two strange men named Gallowgate and St. Christopher. Mungo ends up being molested by both men on the trip, a traumatic plotline presented as an inevitability. During the weekend, Mungo murders the two men and returns to Glasgow alone. At the end of the novel, police find Gallowgate’s body, and want to question Mungo, since his mother notified the police that he could be in danger. Hamish pretends to be Mungo and goes in for questioning, while Mungo sees James at a nearby bus stop. He is left with a choice: to stay in Glasgow, or to go into the unknown with someone he loves. 

A feeling that is difficult to shake throughout the novel is the feeling of dread; the threat of sexual violence toward Mungo feels inescapable. In plenty of LGBTQ+ stories, real and fictional, we know the constant threat of violence that is present in private spaces. Isolated spaces have historically been a safe haven for our community, like the secluded spaces where the boys spend their time, or dangerous, like the fishing trip. While it’s in Mo-Maw’s character to send her son off with strange men, I still question the motives of Stuart’s device with this plot. Does the reader need to see that an abusive form of masculinity is more socially acceptable than the intimate, gay love between Mungo and James? Or is more acceptable than Chickie, Mungo’s neighbor, who remains unmarried? Possibly, but I imagine that most readers probably enter the novel with this mindset. At the apex of the love story, Mungo was ready to leave Glasgow; the arrest, murders, and outing of Mungo and James’s relationship don’t cause the love between the two boys to falter; on the contrary, these events emotionally devastate Mungo into emotional apathy, until the final chapter.

Perhaps Hamish’s potential arrest is a practical plot device Mungo needs to leave Glasgow. Hamish, essentially the “father” of the house, continuously risks his life for his siblings, girlfriend, and child. Pretending to be Mungo is a fulfillment of this responsibility, granted that he knows how to call off the police. This responsibility does not feel just or satisfying, since Hamish must reckon with the effects of traumatizing Mungo through a violent public entity that criminalizes poverty. What kind of accountability can be accomplished when Hamish fears for his and Mungo’s lives? The family’s trauma is underlined with gang activity as a continuation of the centuries-long sectarian violence that plays in Scotland’s history. Gang life is just another trait of generational trauma young men inherit in Glasgow.

Despite the plot devices, Stuart’s well-researched and emotional nuance makes the novel worth its suppressive atmosphere. Mungo’s conflicted feelings about upholding his familial responsibilities, and living an authentic life, are at the core of this novel. Many in our community reckon with the concept that familial love comes with conditions, but the chance to explore sexuality can be a sacred one. There is a certain power at the end of the novel when Mungo feels the glimmer of redemption in his relationship with James. How often do LGBTQ+ characters experience an upswing of hope at the end of their story, especially in the 1980s? I imagine Young Mungo will be just as successful as Shuggie Bain, and rightfully so. However, the question remains for our communities’ stories on what doses of trauma are critical in storytelling, and what are repetitive to the same bouts of trauma that feel overwrought.

Young Mungo is available now from Grove Atlantic.

About the reviewer:

Ally Muterspaw is a librarian based in Indianapolis, IN. She is an active member of her union, and lives with her partner and their cats. While Ally is newer to publishing her writing, her work has been published in Bi Women Quarterly, and has written blogs for her local bookstore. She focuses her writing on LGBTQIA+ book reviews and pop culture.

book review

The Ways We Get By by Joe Dornich Review by Edward Jackson

The Ways We Get By by Joe Dornich

Review by Edward Jackson

Black Lawrence Press
Publication: January 2021
190 Pages
ISBN: 978-1-62557-830-3

The Not So Absurd, in the Absurd Settings of Joe Dornich’s The Ways We Get By

Joe Dornich’s collection of stories find the right balance of new weird and traditional short story form to draw in a wide range of readers. The nine stories have interwoven characters that remind us, as they veer just enough off the track, that we are indeed in a very strange world. Dornich’s characters find themselves in a variety of odd jobs such as cuddlers, fake criers at funerals, Jesus impersonators at Christian theme parks, and campers at a sleepaway where all are allergic to sunlight. While the settings are not that strange, a boat, a camp, even a brothel for cuddling, it is the circumstances within those just enough odd settings that make the stories resonate with readers. 

Dornich wisely starts the collection off with The Continuing Controversy of the Snuggle Shack. One part new age retreat center, one part non-sexual brothel, and two parts weird, readers are drawn in as the circumstances of those protesting the existence of this benign center of cuddling as much as they are drawn to the workers. The protestors seem eerily familiar to right to life protestors, and their tactics can be equally as frightening. 

While the settings of these workplaces draw readers in, it is the protagonists of each story that readers will linger the longest with. It is a genius battle that Dornich has achieved by not allowing these wonderful settings to overshadow his characters. 

The collection for the most part is wisely put together with a balance of odd settings that may not exist in our world but seem fully probable to settings that we see today.

The Reluctant Son of a Fake Hero sees the world of a Hollywood Boulevard costumed superhero worker from the eyes of its teen protagonist, whose father poses for tips with tourists as Superman. The setting, one that anyone whose been to Los Angeles knows all too well, is sadly coiled into a California roll. The young boy ends up joining his father as Aquaman on the boulevard, barely making a living. It is the underbelly of the workers in these jobs that gut punches the reader. 

The obvious parallels to sex workers are indeed one of the most resonating themes of the collection. Dornich’s settings like Hollywood Boulevard, the Snuggle Shack, and the insemination center at the endanger animal release center, all remind readers of places we often look down upon in our world. But Dornich forces the reader to reexamine their thoughts on the workers in today’s world at places like these. 

In addition to the world of sex workers that readers will find parallels too, Dornich readily taps into our daily relationships through family and coworkers that readers will gravitate to. More interesting, though, is the less visible parallels. Dornich taps into our fears as well. The idea that no one would cry at our funeral, makes the hiring of actors to be paid criers completely understandable as the American reader will always have fears about that. But Dornich also makes many parallels to religions and its hypocrisy. The actors at the Christian theme park, show the absurdity of American religion in all its glories. 

While the balance of relatable settings to the new weird workplace situations is a balance of achievement, the collection falls a bit flat in the placing of its last story. Boat Guy feels a bit out of place with the rest of the collection, and not the best ending note. It leaves the reader less enthused by the settings and characters that we started with that packed so much into them. While Boat Guy certainly fits well with the collection, it is not a great bookend to the The Continuing Controversy of the Snuggle Shack. Boat Guy, while funny and a bit odd, feels all too relatable of a note to end on. A boat with a broken toilet and an odd captain doesn’t match the power of the wonderful weirdness of the Snuggle Shack. Had the order of the stories been arranged in a more powerful manner with particular attention to the last one, readers would leave more satisfied. A better ending story that matches the opener would have been more impactful. 

Boat Guy would have been a better fit in the middle. This misstep is a key to the importance of arrangement regarding a collection of stories. Perhaps Understudy to Matinee Jesus, would have been a better closer to the collection. With it’s relatable setting, a theme park, and its oddness of the characters work, spoke better to the achievement of the balance that Dornich was so successful at. 

Arrangement aside, Dornich’s collection of stories, The Ways We Get By, is an achievement in the new weird reaching a wider audience. One ready for a world of new jobs that seem strange, yet totally relatable. Many of us may need paid criers at our funerals as the world gets more cynical and Dornich has wisely tapped into that. Dornich has created several characters and settings I quite enjoyed spending my time with.

The Ways We Get By is available now from Black Lawrence Press.

Edward Jackson is a creative writer who has published prose in a variety of publications including The Louisville Review, The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Blotter, and The Gay & Lesbian Review along with book reviews in Entropy and School Library Journal. He holds degrees in Education, English, and Library Science from Western Michigan University, Aquinas College, University of Georgia, and Youngstown State University. He lives in Greenville, PA with his husband and their menagerie of pets named after Mad Men characters.

book review

Hush by Nikki Ummel Review by Cid Galicia

Hush by Nikki Ummel

Review by Cid Galicia

Belle Point Press
Publication: October 2022
28 pages
ISBN: 979-8-9858965-2-7

In the chapbook Hush, Nikki Ummel guides readers through the neighborhoods, bars, and backyards of New Orleans–while simultaneously the streets, alleyways, and rooms of her own life as a partner, mother, sister, and queer woman. Readers travel the lived realities of medical recovery and support for her sister, hurricanes, and the ever-stretching diversity of today’s family dynamics. There is joy, but that joy is not a shield of denial to hide behind from real-world experience. Through these poems, she offers us truths of living with struggle and love in the heart of The Big Easy.

Many writers use their first pages to coax the reader’s attention and adoration–offers of pleasures, happiness, or wealth of life that can be lived vicariously. Truth is never avoided in New Orleans, and truth is never avoided in Nikki’s writing. Her opening poem, My Sister’s Double Mastectomy, adheres to this. The reader follows Nikki’s observations of her sister’s recovery as she struggles to identify with her new body that looks and feels now so distant and strange.

                      She is relearning comfort…
                      This is not her body, or wasn’t,

                      but now is…

                     She pulls his four year old body
                     to her recessed chest but us unable to staunch his giggles.

To the many readers who have experienced the same personally, or have  had friends/siblings that have, in which they also had to painfully observe–Nikki’s poems offer a sanctuary of empathy.

At the same time, Nikki is also a laughter igniter. One of my favorite poems is Eleven. In this poem, Nikki writes through the narrative lens of a young adolescent girl nearing one of the physical thresholds of womanhood, her first period and also through a mother with concern for this coming too soon for her daughter. What I love about this poem is the simultaneous dialogue of prayers to the Virgin Mother.  Spoken as a reflection of the two, one of high anxiety and the other of youthful female ferocity!

               Hail Mary / full of grace / am I blessed
               amongst women too? / And my fruit / 
               Buds / Holy Mother / but it’s too soon.

               Hail Mary / full of grace / bless me
              Mother of mothers / make me a woman too.

The narrative poetic craft of setting, characters, symbols, and humor are so strongly etched within this poem. We are pulled into the duality of the two characters so deeply, we cannot help but leave this poem with hope and a bit of laughter.  

Throughout this book Nikki artfully covers the full canvas of poetic expression as she guides the reader through her words and stories down the pages and into the hearts, hopes, worries, and fears of each poem.

Nikki Ummel is an active advocate of poetry in her New Orleans community. She is a writer, editor, educator, and laughter-igniter to those who find themselves in her creative wake. Assistant Editor for Bayou Magazine, UNO & Xavier University Instructor, and most recently co-founder of the reading series lmnl lit. Nikki has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and twice awarded the Academy of American Poets’ Andrea Saunders Gereighty Poetry Award. She is the 2022 winner of the Leslie McGrath Poetry Prize. Nikki has been published, or will soon be, in Painted Bride Quarterly, The Adroit Journal, The Georgia Review, and more. Her second chapbook Bayou Sonata, NOLA DNA, is forthcoming Spring 2023.

Hush is available now from Belle Point Press.

book review

Voice to Voice in the Dark by Tim Hunt Review by Cat Dixon

Voice to Voice in the Dark by Tim Hunt

Review By Cat Dixon

Broadstone Books
Publication: August 2022
Paperback, 112 pages
ISBN: 978-1-956782-13-4

The spirit of the Beats pulses throughout this new collection from the poet Tim Hunt. The Beats, as we all know, were focused on genuine lived experiences and often protested against traditional modern life while celebrating art, music, and freedom. Tim Hunt has painted vivid scenes of the everyday with his imagery coupled with the hunger for travel, adventure, and hope. The poet calls out to the voices of the past—excellent poetry collection title—and gives the reader a glimpse into our current American life and its landscapes, both natural and manmade, with reminders of the near-distant past.

The collection opens with an invitation to the reader to go on a walk. The first section, “Poetry for Bread,” introduces Kansas on the verge of harvest. Hunt offers us nourishment for our journey in the form of imagery, prosody, and metaphor. He explores risk as well. In the poem “Here in the New West: American Canyon, ‘Gateway to the Napa Wine Country’ (August 2016),” he describes a game room and writes, “Here, each card matters. Win. Lose. Here, / they do not think about which can to open for dinner/ or what to pretend they want to watch on the TV…” The scene of the cardplayers absorbed with their cards mimics how each of us loses ourselves in something—be it film or literature or even a card game. As we latch onto distractions and devotions, Hunt reminds us that there is more to life than winning or losing, consuming and hoarding. Each day, each interaction matters.

In the poem “Between the Highway and Train Tracks (Vallejo, CA, August 2016),” Hunt brings us to a liquor store. He writes, “Here…. The upturned hand/ receiving the brown-bagged pint—/ the breadless communion/ of temporary salvation:/ blood of my blood: morning, / noon and night:/ forever and again. / Amen.” This quick detour has turned into a prayer, a lamentation. There is no sustenance in those bottles and pints; instead, the poet points us to what we can do, and what we should do. In the next poem “A Tomb for Melvin, Who Has None,” we’re reminded of the brevity and randomness of our lives. This line stays with me, “So, I offer this as if it could matter, as you once mattered..” What else can we give to our deceased loved ones and friends but our words, our memorials to those who once journeyed along the road with us? I thoroughly enjoyed Hunt’s take on Ginsberg’s famous poem “A Supermarket in California.” The poem, titled “A Truck Stop in Kansas,” is part portrait of the Midwest, part call to transcend the everyday.  

As we move through the second section, we stop in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The imagery here, focused on light, ends with this important ponderance about childhood ignorance/bliss:

         And as the setting sun winks the streetlights on
         and you wait for the Grand Parade to begin,
         you do not think to wonder whether your parents believe
         or pretend, because here, in this Magic Kingdom, you
         do not have to worry about that. 

Despite the happy setting, something is looming in the distance. Throughout the poems the reader catches glimpses of some kind of concern. There’s the “dark of the moon,” “fallen fruit,” the missed turn on the road, and “the lake’s spring-thinned ice.” All remembrances of the past are coupled with the pain of humanity’s selfishness and the hope for a better future. 

The third section, titled “In That Time When Time is Not Measured,” begins with childhood, younger days of innocence. My favorite piece here is “The Story,” which opens with, “This is the story you were told/ when you were too young to understand the story/ but could tell from the telling that you were meant to remember/ and carry it forward…” Later Hunt writes, “Even why a war?” This—paired with the “brown shirts and military caps” from the previous section and the poem “The Boy is Taken to the Soldier’s Grave,” which begins this new section, and the long poem “The Circle”—captures how our American history is marred by war, how our society is built on struggle, and how if we consider the whole picture of our past, we, too, may question how it has come to this. But Hunt doesn’t criticize the soldiers who served and are serving our country; instead, he recognizes their painful sacrifices and honors them. Hunt writes about how soldiers became great fighters in the poem “The Circle.”  He writes: 

         Because we learned to Hate—
         the t snapped like breaking a dried stick, 
         and this not a sign or memory but the thing,

         a never forgotten: brighter than pain,
         grief—a truth. The truth. The hate.
         And leaning back, arms closed, silent again. 

Hunts ends the collection with imagery that is carried throughout the poems: light, travel, and a boat returning to shore once again. These poems invite the reader to journey with the poet as he strolls a gas station with Allen Ginsberg, travels from Kansas to California, hops on a railcar, stops at a soldier’s grave, and ponders America’s past along with its vast landscape and its promise of a better tomorrow.

This book is available now in the Broadstone Books Catalog.