book The Death of Sweet Mister

reviewed by Steve Harris

Published in Issue No. 51 ~ August, 2001

At a late point in Daniel Woodrell’s new novel The Death of Sweet
, Shug, an overweight, 13 year old boy, finds his father’s
blood-filled boot in the sink. He knows his father is dead, and he
immediately begins to clean up signs of the fight. After the broken
dishes are swept up, blood scrubbed from walls, and pieces of flesh
scraped off a frying pan and thrown away, Shug knows enough to carry
the boot back to the shed where he hides it in the “farthest dark
place.” It will become useful later. When his mother returns with her
lover, each nervous and out of breath from burying the body, Shug is
watching TV. He tells them he’s already eaten but he could use a
snack. It’s the kind of understated but pregnant response one expects
from noir but, in the hands of Woodrell, the echo is deeper than that.
By novel’s end, though circumstances are inexact, it is clear Woodrell
means that the echo heard is from Oedipus.

Shug is the “Sweet Mister” of the novel’s title, and it’s through his
voice – itself coming from that “farthest dark place” – that events
leading up to his father’s killing are recounted. Shug and his mother,
Glenda, live in a caretaker’s cottage in the middle of a cemetery
among (as Shug puts it) the “gathered dead.” The time appears to be
the early sixties, with vague references to Vietnam, dialogue laced
with “daddy-o’s”and “dig,” and a punch-button Dodge. As in earlier
Woodrell novels (Give Us a Kiss, Tomato Red), the
setting is the Ozarks, on the wrong side of the tracks. Living with
them is Glenda’s husband Red Akins, a brutal ex-con who has enlisted
Shug in various dope-stealing escapades throughout the local
community: “Man stuff” as Red tells Shug – in case Glenda were to
ask just what it is they are doing at nights.

No one seems to think Shug is Red’s son, particularly Red himself, as
he both physically and mentally batters away at the boy. But Shug is
resilient and knows enough “to fall down and act destroyed” when he
sees the punches coming. The boy also can needle back and, after one
foray, asks for his share – shocking Red and signaling the boy’s
growing criminal savvy. The scene also illustrates Woodrell’s dark
tongue-in-cheek comedic touch. All the characters in the novel are
grotesque (recalling Flannery O’Conner’s landscape) and, like
O’Conner, Woodrell will use comedy to signal darker happenings. In
another scene, for instance, Shug is out delivering newspapers with
the salty (or just plain nasty) Grandmother Akins. She peppers the boy
with charges of being a sissy and challenging him on his newspaper
throws. Upon dropping the boy off at the cemetery, she disgustedly
tells him to make sure his mother gives him a “cookie.”

However, despite all this, one must remember Shug is still a child,
and Woodrell sprinkles in moments in which the reader clearly sees the
boy – even as Shug’s hardened shell is quickly developing. On a
fishing trip with his father (which is really an excuse for Red to
quiz the boy on what he’s told the police), he’s told to stand in the
river while Red has sex in the truck with his girlfriend. Shug – who
can’t swim – listens to the water as if it were softly singing
sirens. In the water’s murmuring, he imagines the “voices”of “women
who wouldn’t hurt” him and whom he could even join if he only goes a
little further.

It is in this passage, Woodrell effectively weaves the loneliness of a
child with the harder stuff of tragedy. It is in the river that Shug
has his wish for death: something peaceful, something to take him
away, perhaps even the final departure of a destroyed childhood:


Once I sat still, gang after gang of little fish stopped by to nibble,
on the vast white belly-skin I offered. They lined around my tummy.
They pecked under my arms. They gathered like a pack to pucker and
nibble at the fat rolls on my chest. I had the right flavor for them.
The fish were small narrow things, some creamy with dark stripey
parts, others pure yellow, and all moved fast. The fish made me feel
like a special treat, like if I did float and laid myself in the
current and drifted they’d come with, come along, a pack of fish
traveling in the shadow beneath me as I floated and floated away.

Glenda, Shug’s mother, is a complex mix of mother, tease and femme
fatale. She thinks she loves Shug, but it’s a love rooted in her own
vanity. Shug represents Glenda’s brief romantic dream (and fling), when
she worked as a waitress in Las Vegas (while Red was in jail) and dated a
gangster named “The Baron.” Shug is apparently the child of that
relationship, and always lurking at the edges of her dealings with Shug
is a sexual tension that Glenda, in her boredom, cultivates. Her embraces
are motherly – but with Glenda it’s always something more. Shug is
fiercely protective of her and is even willing to fight Red to protect
her, but as the novel progresses, his descriptions of Glenda increasingly
linger over how she fills a pair of shorts.

Into all this drives a man with a green Thunderbird – Jimmy Vin
Pearce – a cook at a local restaurant. Glenda senses that Jimmy is
the way out and, just as surely, Shug feels resentment and jealousy.
To some extent, Shug has learned how to deal with Red and, with that,
comes the feeling of an alliance against Red. Shug doesn’t even view
Red as human, describing him as having “claws,”along with a fairly
predictable, if savage, nature. But with Jimmy, Shug’s ability to
control the situation is diminished. When Jimmy rescues Shug and
Glenda from a rough night out with Red, the die is cast. It isn’t long
before Jimmy and Glenda are lovers. But Jimmy is hardly attractive,
being an older, heavier man. Jimmy is certainly kinder than Red, but
his own past connection with Las Vegas gets Glenda to reminiscing over
the “Baron,” who Jimmy also knew. Shug rightly mistrusts his mother’s
motives but is used by her as a lookout while she and Jimmy bed down.

Inevitably, lines converge and there is murder, betrayal, and murder
again. Sweet Mister’s own death is both metaphorical and very real, as
innocence dies – at this point, willingly. A choice is made, and
mother and son make the final dark turn inward. We are left with the
image of Shug on the porch, stroking his mother’s leg as she stands
behind him, while staring into the hard disc of the morning sun. For
despite a flood of morning light Shug, like Oedipus, has discovered
there is “nothing” he “cared to see.” But he goes on staring into the
sun until he no longer can “see a thing.” In The Death of Sweet
, Daniel Woodrell has created an intersect between noir and
high tragedy. The effect is seamless, devastating.


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Steve Harris is a book reviewer for the online journals, Samsara and Avatar Review. He lives with his wife and three children in Alexandria, Virginia.