Oftentimes, we evaluate the emotional power of a work of art based on its capability to invoke tears. We’ll recommend a book or a movie to our friends under the pretense that it made us cry over a gut-wrenching twist to the fate of a beloved character. Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggie Bain” harnesses a different sort of emotional power. Characters are not built up and then broken down; instead, the tragedies of each chapter immediately and methodically eat at the reader’s emotional pulp, leaving nothing but a rind of numbness. The same numbness that characterizes alcoholic mother Agnes and her young son, Shuggie Bain.

That’s not to say that the path to numbness is instant — the uninitiated reader faces a grueling experience with the opening chapters. In fact, I was overcome by lightheadedness and nausea and had to put the novel down for numerous days after a vividly violent depiction of a rape in the second chapter. But Stuart’s prose, almost too clear and easy to read for the subject matter it conveys, drives the reader to continue against the best interest of their mental state. Agnes topples a lamp and ignites her bedroom while dancing with Shuggie in an alcohol-induced, blacked out episode? Maybe this will be a wakeup call. Agnes’s husband Shug becomes increasingly absent and lazier at obscuring his adultery? Maybe Agnes will leave and embark on a more empowered lifestyle. Food is scantily covered by Agnes’s fraudulent disability checks, which are largely reserved for the coffee mugs of lager that keep the shakes at bay? Maybe … this is just how it is. Stuart doesn’t care that he already has the reader pinned; the punches just keep coming, pounding the reader’s emotions into a deeper and deeper comatose state.

And that just becomes the state of affairs. Any one of the traumatic events that Stuart regularly pens could be the foundational obstacle of the protagonist of another book, but their relentlessness in “Shuggie Bain” drives the reader towards near-indifference. Sure, one could continue reading each chapter with hope, but, in the name of self-care, brace themselves for the inevitable calamity that will meet them. This preemptive repression keeps the reader from appreciating the sparse morsels of redemption and good fortune that the family experiences. 

Stuart’s approach was not doomed to fail, but the barrage of tragedy simply became overwhelming in conjunction with the novel’s 430 pages. Perhaps I could have allowed the novel’s full weight to hit me with a smaller serving size, but it became too much to perpetually pull myself up by my emotional bootstraps, knowing that I would be methodically and even more intensely undone over the course of the lengthy remainder of the novel. I felt as though I had to implement defense mechanisms just as the novel’s characters did, if I were to live vicariously through them.

With all that in mind, it would be a disservice to leave anyone with the impression that “Shuggie Bain” is poorly planned out or that it should be avoided altogether. This was no result of a lack of foresight on behalf of Stuart — with emotional resonance for a foreign subject matter being so difficult to evoke, particularly in a debut novel, it would be unfair not to give Stuart praise for injecting his novel with too much of this resonance. 

It’s entirely possible that I was too mentally weak for “Shuggie Bain.” But reading fiction in a time as gutting as the COVID-19 pandemic, starved of human interaction and haunted by the stories and statistics of daily news reports, any sense of even vicarious normalcy would be a dream come true. Even if “Shuggie Bain” offered full chapters where I could breathe easily as opposed to its more common paragraph or sometimes few page oases of relative peace, I may have enjoyed it more in light of current circumstances. But if you need a break — an escape — like I do, you might want to wait until a vaccine has become available before picking up this novel.

Daily Book Review Editor Andrew Pluta can be reached at pluta@umich.edu.