Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, Shuggie Bain, was long listed for this year’s Booker Prize. It’s the only one I have finished from that list (it’s excellent). It did leave me excited to see where Stuart’s next work would take us. I did not expect to see that next work pop up so soon! When I read Shuggie Bain, I had forgotten that The New Yorker published Stuart earlier in the year; here is a link to our thoughts on “Found Wanting.”
Here we have “The Englishman.” Since today is a holiday in the United States, and I have been doing some resting and gardening, I have not looked at it yet and don’t know what it’s about, though the photograph that accompanies the article gives me some idea.
Here is how it begins:
The Englishman reminded me of my mother’s lemons. When I was a boy, she would catch the far ferry to the distant mainland to stock up on dried goods. It was a daylong pilgrimage that she made four times a year. Once, while gathering the flour and the dried milk, she had been so surprised, so charmed, by these golden suns that she bought a little sack full of Sicilian lemons. My brothers and I hid together in our narrow pantry and clawed at the waxy flesh, sniffing our claggy fingernails in delight, taken aback that they smelled so green and oily and not a bit like sunshine. My mother made each of us suck one, and then shook with muffled laughter as we winced. We were happy until my father caught us.
I really need to get on here and share my thoughts on Shuggie Bain — it really is a tremendous book — but in the meantime I hope everyone checks out Stuart’s work! Please feel free to share your thoughts below.
Having finished the story, I shared a brief comment/reaction below, but here is a bit more of an introduction to the story.
“The Englishman” is narrated by a young man named David. It’s the 1990s (I think), and David has spent his life on Scotland’s western isles. The first time he really leaves home is in answer to an advertisement to be a “house boy” in London for the titular Englishman, a banker named William.
Though at first there is a pretense to have David cook and clean, it’s clear to David and to us exactly what William has hired David to do. David finds William watching him often. William also calls David by a different name: “Casper! Bit better than dull old David, don’t you think? I’ve grown tired of Davids.”
William also grows a bit impatient when nothing else seems to be happening. This is where Stuart excels I think. William is not particularly sympathetic. He feels he has paid for David’s time and attention, including sexual gratification — and he’s done this for years with several other young men — but we still feel his loneliness. In other words, much like the characters in Shuggie Bain William is not simply a monster, though he is that. But William can plead plausible deniability: when he tells David he is tired of how things are going — in other words, he’s ready for their sexual relationship to begin — David tells him that he was hired for something else. But William says, “The advert was in the back pages of a gay magazine. For a houseboy. It’s hardly the employment office.”
But William is not a fool. He is not willing to allow William to make this that kind of transaction, much to William’s disappointment.