The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell. Plume/Penguin Group, 2008. 196 pages.
Several years ago, I read an amazing novel by Daniel Woodrell entitled Winter’s Bone, and after the review was published, I found that Woodrell’s narrative style lingered in my memory. Perhaps it was because the plot of Winter’s Bone resembled another favorite of mine, Charles Portis’s True Grit, except instead of a western setting, Woodrell’s tale took place in the Ozarks. The protagonist in both tales — a spunky teenage girl — goes on a daunting search for her missing father.
Last month, I discovered that Winter’s Bone has been made into a movie and has recently won considerable praise at the Sundance Festival. The film is also receiving impressive endorsements from a growing number of Appalachian writers who invariably comment on the fact that Winter’s Bone depicts Appalachian culture without resorting to the traditional stereotypes (moonshine, feuds and inbreeding).
After reading a series of glowing reviews for Winter’s Bone, I decided to track down other Woodrell novels (there are six) in the hope of finding yet another Appalachian novel that treated our culture and its people with authenticity and integrity. That brings me to The Death of Sweet Mister, Woodrell’s novel that precedes Winter’s Bone.
The narrator of The Death of Sweet Mister is an overweight, 13-year-old boy called Shug who speaks in a strangely poetic manner about the natural world that surrounds him. He and his mother, Glenda, live in a house in the center of a cemetery. Glenda is a graveyard caretaker, but Shug does most of the physical labor (cutting grass, weeding and planting flowers). However, this peaceful existence is often disturbed by Red, Glenda’s husband, an inept criminal just home from prison, who abuses both Shug and his mother; as Shug describes their relationship, “He had a variety of ugly tones to speak in and used them all at me most days.”
Red and his criminal cohort, Basil, spend most days in a drunken stupor; however they have also a scheme for stealing prescription drugs which requires the assistance of Shug. The hapless boy is forced to break into doctor’s offices while Red and Basil wait in the car. Frequently, they force the boy to pose as a Grit salesman, a ruse that gets Shug into homes where he steals drugs directly from the bedside of victims. Initially, Shug develops confidence and manages to talk himself out of a series of bizarre dilemmas. When he is finally caught, he learns that Red and Basil have impressive criminal records.
The Death of Sweet Mister is “country noir” at its best. There is a grim inevitability about the gradual corruption of Shug, a sensitive, intelligent boy who is powerless to save himself. Certainly, the threat posed by Red is powerful, but the greatest danger is deceptive. Shug is “a momma’s boy,” and his total devotion to Glenda may be the most destructive influence in his life. Like the “femmes fatales” in the novels of James Cain and Raymond Chandler, Glenda, a compulsive flirt, is adept at using her greatest weapon — her feigned helplessness. Addicted to “sipping tea” (rum and coke) that she carries in a silver thermos, she stumbles about in sexy disarray, a flashing beacon to any amoral male that passes by.
In this instance, the vigilant male is Jimmy Vin, a man with a job (chef), a taste for expensive things, money ... and a Thunderbird! He encounters Glenda and Shug when they are in desperate straits. Glenda calls him after she and Shug have been abandoned by Red on a lonely, rain-swept road. When Jimmy Vin comes to the rescue, the stage is set for sensual encounters, passion and danger. This heady brew of theft, love, hate and deception reads like the best of modern crime fiction. However, there is more going on here than heart-pounding drama.
In the final analysis, this little dark and twisted tale is about Shug. Woodrell sets the stage for a confrontation. What is going to happen when Red discovers the Thunderbird parked in Glenda’s driveway? When Red, the psycho, meets Vin, the gourmand, who will survive? And what about Basil? However, the real issue is what will become of Shug?
Perhaps the best insight into this novel is given by commenting on the title. “Sweet mister” is the affectionate nickname that Glenda gives to Shug. When she calls him “sweet mister,” she is acknowledging Shug’s best qualities: his childlike devotion and his constant striving to please. However, at the end of this tale, things have changed. Shug has watched his mother entice other men, and as he matures, his devotion is colored by rage and resentment. Glenda’s veiled suggestions that Red is not Shug’s father leaves the boy with a sense of “being excluded” from a “more significant” place in her affections.
The Death of Sweet Mister, then, is not a literal death. It is the death of everything that is innocent and wholesome in Shug. That probably explains why one major critic (London Times Supplement) called The Death of Sweet Mister “an Oedipal noir.” Although Shug’s tragedy does not have the redemptive conclusion of Winter’s Bone, it is consistent with Woodrell’s chosen themes. The author has staked a claim to a specific topic: the resilience of adolescents who find themselves trapped in a menacing environment.