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The Death of Sweet Mister
Daniel Woodrell
A Plume Book ISNB 0-452-28330-2 $13.00 US $19.00 Canadian

'Don't be a puss. It's just the jitters nipin' at you, fat boy.'

‘Sweet Mister’ 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 reviewer’s 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 aren’t 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. There’s 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 doesn’t have a choice since Red will beat him up unless he does it. Glenda, his Ma is so self-centred she doesn’t even notice Shuggie is slipping into Red’s ways. It’s just ‘Men’s Stuff’. Shuggie knows it wrong but cannot say so.

Shuggie is witness to Red’s 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 1950’s 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 isn’t going to turn out well.

Glenda meets a man in a T-Bird who could get her out of this mess. He’s 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. She’s left topless at the side of the road with Shuggie and it seems to be a breaking point for her. There’s 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 wasn’t there when it happened, so we don’t see it.

Red is gone. Mr T-Bird has promised them a new life.
Basil, Red’s friend is puzzled he hasn’t heard from Red in a while and he tries to get Shuggie to talk, but Shuggie doesn’t talk, he knows better than that.

But Mr T-Bird hasn’t got room for the kid. He wants to leave the boy behind and Shuggie loves his foolish mother. But what can a boy do?
It isn’t 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 isn’t 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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