The Death of Sweet Mister
A Plume Book ISNB 0-452-28330-2 $13.00 US $19.00 Canadian
be a puss. It's just the jitters nipin' at you, fat boy.'
is quite haunting and lingers long after you have put it down. It
is inhabited by characters you can sense are real. As I read, the
image of the actress Melanie Griffith kept on passing before the
reviewers eyes. This is a role made perfect for her. The faded
grown up ingenue with little reading and a poor sense of judgement,
a mother using all her wiles and charms to make life go the way
she wants it, but more often than not now it hits a brick wall.
Sweet Mister is
full of people who arent smart. Sweet Mister is Shuggie, an overweight
boy of around 13, a bastard, who is raised by his feckless Ma and Red,
a felon who hates the boy. Theres also Basil, a fairly dim and
cowardly con and best friend of Red. Together they begin using the child
to commit their robberies for them sending him in to steal drugs from
dying children and old folks. Shuggie doesnt have a choice since
Red will beat him up unless he does it. Glenda, his Ma is so self-centred
she doesnt even notice Shuggie is slipping into Reds ways.
Its just Mens Stuff. Shuggie knows it wrong
but cannot say so.
Shuggie is witness to Reds philandering and suffers his cruelty.
He is constantly teased for being fat and weak, useless. Glenda defends
him best she can, but her use is strictly bedroom stuff. Shuggie watches
her closely, sometimes too closely, there are no other women in his
life and he is a growing boy.
"The screams I bottled that time and all the times similar waited
and waited to be loosed, until the time they were. I wish I could add
none of this happened."
There are no moral judgements here. Everyone is pretty unsophisticated
and the setting, written in 1969, although it could be contemporary,
it feels as though it is set in the 1950s Ozarks.
The book documents the endless humiliations the brutality and
education in criminal ways of Shuggie. The book is told from his perspective
and spoken in his rather simple but direct way. Shuggie most likely
isnt going to turn out well.
Glenda meets a man in a T-Bird who could get her out of this mess. Hes
the chef at a nearby restaurant who fancies her. They do start an affair
after Red humiliates her by gambling away the silk robe he gave her
after a robbery. Shes left topless at the side of the road with
Shuggie and it seems to be a breaking point for her. Theres one
man she can call and the T-Bird finally arrives to take them home.
Shuggie witnesses everything and since he hates Red, he has no qualms
about acting lookout. But he is afraid of Red and so is Glenda.
It is fear that holds this family unit together and the violence it
spawns is subtly left off the page. Shuggie wasnt there when it
happened, so we dont see it.
Red is gone. Mr T-Bird has promised them a new life.
Basil, Reds friend is puzzled he hasnt heard from Red in
a while and he tries to get Shuggie to talk, but Shuggie doesnt
talk, he knows better than that.
But Mr T-Bird hasnt got room for the kid. He wants to leave the
boy behind and Shuggie loves his foolish mother. But what can a boy
It isnt going to end well.
Sweet Mister flows like a river. The language is rhythmical and intensely
atmospheric. You read because it is compelling and it isnt cute
in the Cider House Rules kind of way. As an uncomfortable
slice of southern life, full of emotion and guilt and suffering it is
painfully realistic. This is a real American tragedy.
Review © Sam North August 2002
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