Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling

 

 Fiction Review   

 
The Death of Sweet Mister
By Daniel Woodrell
Plume, 2002
Paperback, $13.00 (208pp)
ISBN:  0452283302
 
 
 

Daniel Woodrell’s The Death of Sweet Mister is an astounding novel set in a small Missouri town in the Ozarks.  In the opening scene Woodrell creates a taut landscape of a 13-year old, Shuggie Akins, his mother, Glenda, and Red.  Shuggie introduces his parolee stepfather on the first page:  “Red made me get out and paint the truck another color once we’d crossed the state line.”  Shuggie is fat and lonely, which feeds his care-taking role with his mother.  Shuggie’s devotion to his mother tilts and swerves throughout the novel, allowing Woodrell to build another layer of between the two. 

Glenda—in “shorts that were not too motherly”—is Shuggie’s ineffective protector and an oasis to the grimness in Shuggie’s life.  Glenda drinks her ever-present “tea” of rum and colas and dresses “like she had somewhere to go.”  Her gentleness towards Shuggie and his responsiveness intertwine with the abrasive Red.  

The multi-layered urgency and immediacy of the characters and their motivations tightens throughout the novel and captivates.  Red’s distaste for Shuggie ripples across the pages, but does not prevent him from employing Shuggie to shimmy up drainpipes to steal drugs from people’s homes or to accompany Red on romantic fishing trysts.  Their escapades send Shuggie into a variety of homes and peel back layers of Shuggie’s desires and needs.  In one home, Shuggie relates “Pictures of people who must have mattered to the man stood all over a shelf along the wall.”  Red’s criminal activities occur seemingly behind Glenda’s back, although when loot lands in their kitchen, it is obvious that Glenda has chosen to ignore the crimes.  And their impact on Shuggie. 

Subtle twists and turns populate Woodrell’s taut landscape.  Jimmy Vin Pearce appears as their savior, ready to take Glenda and Shuggie away from Red’s demonic actions.  As Glenda pulls Shuggie into her deceit, the consequences ratchet up for all the characters.  And the promise and protection that Glenda exudes, like the scent of her perfume and “tea,” inexorably alters the family.

 

Elizabeth King Humphrey
Southern Scribe Reviews
 

© 2002, Southern Scribe Reviews, All Rights Reserved