Book Review: The Death of Sweet Mister-Daniel Woodrell

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There are certain books that resonate deep within, leaving an oily and gritty feeling within your body. A taste in you mouth that’s dry yet supple, quenching some sort of unknown appetite you didn’t know you had. One such book is The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell. Being my first Woodrell novel, I am quite impressed with his writing style and his ability to keep completely twisting the reader into a story that weaves itself into a dark hole. I have an affinity for dark novels, and this one was by far very dark and contorted. After coming from reading a dense and quite frankly a horrible novel (not sure I want to name said novel), The Death of Sweet Mister was a perfect pick-me-up and I found myself completely consumed by the pages.

You wake up in this here world, my sweet li’l mister, you got to wake up tough. You go out that front door tough of a mornin’ and you stay tough ’til lights out – have you learned that?

We experience our sweet mister or ‘Shug’ Atkins growing up in the Missouri Ozarks. Everyday, the thirteen year old boy must face the wrath of his father, Red-a bestial and drug obsessed man. Also the unduly affection of his mother, giving Shug a brimming tenderness towards his mother. We see the struggles of Shug as he battles with abuse internally and externally. Shug aids his drunken father on quests for painkillers, helping him in looting poor and sick people’s home. The novel doesn’t empathizes with any of the characters and presents them as a matter of fact. Red’s influence over his family is dark and abrasive. Woodell doesn’t waste time in not humanizing him, and he crafts a perfectly despicable male character. The novel focuses on the loss of childhood or rather the lack of childhood as Shug faces adult situations. The sexual pervasiveness that his mother Glenda exudes, creates a lustful rift between her and Shug, something which Woodrell is not afraid to touch on. The life of thirteen year old Shug is open for all to see as he grapples throughout his poor country life. The people surrounding him are influential and shape who and what he speculates at becoming. Woodrell illuminates the harming dangers of childhood that are tainted with pre-adultness.  Shug often describes his emotions as bottled up and is desperately searching for an out.

The bottle where I hid my lifelong screams busted wide. The screams flew loose where nobody could hear. The road I walked along was sunburnt dirt and dust lifted with each step. I walked alone and felt my screams break free. I screamed over things that happened I thought I’d forgot. I screamed past fence rows and cows along the sunburnt road. Parts of me I didn’t understand broke loose inside and clogged my throat. The cows laid listening to my screams as if they knew all about them and didn’t need to hear more.

The novel hangs the essence of childhood on a limb and tortures it front of our eyes. It leaves no prisoners and scrapes at every bone we have left at the end of the story. I deeply enjoyed The Death Sweet Mister. I enjoyed it so much, I read the book in one day. It’s an easy read (only 175 pages), and keeps you turning the pages wondering the outcome of the oleaginous yet gritty characters. I haven’t read any other Woodrell novels but I am curious if they are any match to the one I just read. They book is anything but saccharine and I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone who seeks resolution or happiness in their reading. Be prepared for guttural writing that bares its teeth along the way.

What are your favourite Woodrell novels?

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