Daniel Woodrell doesn’t mess about with the sort of provincial pleasantries that allow readers to confuse “rural” with “rustic” or “small town” with “quaint.” Woodrell, in other words, doesn’t honor the passports of cultural tourists into his backwoods Missouri. Like Shipping News author E. Annie Proulx retelling Deliverance, Woodrell captures in precise, unflinching language a world that few folks reading this alt-newsweekly would dare to tread (on purpose, anyway).
Specifically, The Death of Sweet Mister tells the story of 13-year-old Morris “Shug” Akins (though his come-hither mother, Glenda, just calls him “Shug” or “Shuggie,” depending upon how many “teas” — rum and Cokes — she’s had). Shug, a fat kid with a taste for his mother’s desserts, and Glenda live with Red, their dope-stealing roustabout of a “dad” (for Shug’s lineage is in doubt even if they labor under the notion of nuclear family) as caretakers of the local cemetery in West Table, Mo.
Of course, Shug gets roped into the dope-stealing biz and, yes, the novel heads down a decidedly Oedipal path, but that’s only part of the story. And that the rudiments of the plot, given the context and all, are often predictable, doesn’t change that there isn’t a single word wasted, a single image or passage that’s contrived, unoriginal or half-baked.
From Shug’s inevitable bust, which occurs while serving soup to the sick gentleman from whom he’s trying to lift prescription dope, to the description of the casual desecration of cemetery monuments undertaken by drunken high-school students, to the exact sound of a decapitated frog’s body hitting the pond; there’s nothing that fails to resonate. Often, that resonance facilitates the kind of uneasiness you don’t usually come across in a modern page-turner. But Woodrell’s made a career of painting lives unbalanced and ignored with the brushes of people who’ve lived too long inside their heads. The voice he gives Shug — proper and deliberate at first, fevered as he devolves toward the inevitable loss of innocence (a string of moments which, in and of themselves, will leave you searching for the soap on a rope) — is as idiosyncratic yet possible as Flannery O’Connor’s young Tarwater from The Violent Bear It Away, or Quoyle, the protagonist of Proulx’s Shipping News.
Details and connections such as Red’s obsession with rockabilly music (the book seems set in the late 1960s) only rise up later, when you realize that at some point, Elvis Presley too was a cherubic backwoods mama’s boy when he first wandered into the Sun studios.
Characters, places, a train wreck of a chain of events and the little spaces between these wrecks are captured, their inherent emotional barometric pressure and freeze-frame details lingering like bourbon breath that reminds you of something you probably shouldn’t have done and can only half-remember anyway.
E-mail Chris Handyside at firstname.lastname@example.org.