Thursday, June 5, 2008
The moment I finished The Death of Sweet Mister I had the impulse to hop in my car and drive some distance before hurling it out of the window and never looking back, so I can't say I whole-heartedly recommend it.
Once I shook off the queasy feeling the ending had left me with (which was not the sad feeling I had anticipated and braced myself for through the last half of the book), once I was fully back in my own life, in the kitchen boiling water for tea, I found myself agreeing with the Kaye Gibbons blurb on the back cover: "The Death of Sweet Mister holds its own against anything in the canon of American literature."
It is compelling.
The story is about a thirteen year old boy named Morris who is always called "Shug." Shug lives with his mother Glenda in West Table, Missouri in a small house in the middle of a cemetery she is in charge of monitoring and mowing on a regular basis. He does most of the work while Glenda saunters around in dresses that suggest she has somewhere better to be and sips from her silver thermos of "tea." He often mixes her "tea" for her, and she often serves him big bowls of ice cream with old coffee splashed on top. The two of them do their best to stay in the good graces of Red, Shug's abusive, drug addicted father who is more often out and about with his cohort Basil Powney stealing and taking drugs than at home with the two of them, and this is how they all prefer it.
Red and Basil enlist Shug to help them in their ongoing quest for more pills, forcing him to break into the homes of people who've just been released from the hospital with loads of good dope. Red's nurse friend provides the street addresses and he and Basil deliver Shug to the houses and wait while he goes in for the drugs pretending to be a normal kid selling a magazine full of farm jokes.
Shug's narrative voice is at times as backwoods eloquent as Tomato Red's Sammy Barlow and easier to empathize with since he is still a child. It took me a day of on and off attempts and fifty pages to feel fully committed to his story, but by the next day I couldn't put it down and finished it by evening. The pace picks up substantially once the thieving begins.While reading this novel I've been listening to some new songs by Jakob Dylan. One is called "Evil Is Alive and Well." The lyric focuses on the many manifestations of evil and makes the point that it is pervasive and thriving. It twists at the end to include the singer:
When midnight's done and the day won't start
All I ever gave you was a broken heart
It's hard to admit but it's easy to tell
That evil is alive and well
The Death of Sweet Mister illustrates how evil is born of a broken heart.
It is compelling.
Sunday, June 1, 2008
It's easy to dismiss something as merely crime fiction, fantasy, western, romance. Those are the lower classes of writing. (Okay, maybe the middle classes.) It's a way of ordering things but also of clarifying that they are not in the coveted category of literature. As an admirer of the craft of songwriting, I gladly reject the notion that there are legitimate classes of creative expression. I don't scoff when I hear about graduate level courses focusing on the music of Tupac Shakur. It's easy to roll your eyes and categorize as a way of dismissing, but wisdom and insight have never been exclusive to one form of expression or one sort of individual.
And I believe Daniel Woodrell is on to something. Maggie has called for a haiku. I didn't get on the last contest, but I'll try this one: a haiku about one of the books we're reading this summer. Mine speaks to Tomato Red:
The trash side of town.
The rich folk look down; they see
Tomato Red is a novel about class told from the point of view of Sammy Barlow, a poor white wanderer looking for "the bunch that will have me." The novel is set in the town of West Table, located in the Missouri Ozarks. At the start of the narrative Sammy has just arrived in West Table, landed a job at the local dog food factory, and is out to make new friends. He finds his bunch in brother and sister Jamalee (Tomato Red) and Jason, and their prostitute mother Bev, who live in side by side shacks in the most financially challenged part of town known as Venus Holler.
He meets Jam and Jason after he breaks into the home of a vacationing wealthy West Table family in an attempt to impress the dog food factory coworkers he'd done crank with earlier in the evening. (What is crank, anyway?) Jam and Jason had also broken into the home as part of their ongoing research into the lives of the local out-of-town rich. Jason keeps track of the comings and goings of the upper crust at his job as an apprentice hair-dresser at a local salon. Jamalee believes that life is elsewhere and she plans to take her knowledge of how the rich live and make a new life for herself and her brother somewhere else. Anywhere else. The key to her plan is Jason's devastating good looks and hair-styling talent, but she sees the need for a third member of the team to provide muscle and help raise money for the getaway. Sammy is searching for people to call his own. They became fast friends after being chased together from the rich house back to Venus Holler.
What follows is often hilarious and ultimately tragic, but the story is one that provokes thought more so than tears. The novel's strengths are Woodrell's ability to deliver strong social criticism without being the least bit didactic and the wonderful characters he creates, all of whom you empathize with despite their many, many flaws. I can't think of any weaknesses.
I want to share some excerpts that illustrate the exquisite narrative voice of Sammy Barlow because it is the biggest selling point I can offer:
Sammy describes Venus Holler:
Venus Holler was the most low life part of town, so I already knew where it was. I stalled until late afternoon before I let myself drive down there. I felt instantly at home.
This is the kind of address where the wives will know shortcuts to the welfare office and have a bail bondsman's number taped to the fridge.
There were two babes in rusty looking diapers wrestling with a dog in a mud yard across the street. Mom squatted on the porch, cherishing her cigarette, and there was a squad of dead schnapps soldiers scattered to the side of the steps.
Sammy describes the house he's broken into in West Table:
I slithered inside, uncut, and tumbled among the riches.
When I wobbled inside that lit-up room the wind jumped from my chest. I gasped, groaned, mewed. My legs folded beneath me and I fell face first to a soft carpet that felt sweeter than my ex-wife's hair and brought to mind sheep in a flowery meadow high in the Alps or Japan or Vermont or some similar postcard spot from out there in the world where the dear goods I'll never own are made.
You see the insides of a world like that and it sets your own to spinning off-balance, and a tireless gnawing discontent gets to snacking on your guts and spirit. This caliber of place makes you want to discriminate against yourself, basically, as it reveals you as such a loser. A tiny mote of nothin' much just here to muss up the planet these worthies lived so grandly on and wished they could keep clean of you and yours.
I tracked down a youtube clip (actually three of them) of an interview with Daniel Woodrell in which he discusses several of his works, primarily Tomato Red and Give Us a Kiss, which I'll be reading soon. He told the interviewer that there was a string of unsolved murders in the area where he lived that had not been properly investigated because the victims were all from the wrong part of town. It made him think about how some members of our society are deemed disposable by the powers that be and led him to write Tomato Red. If you read it, it will get you to thinking, too. It is both a beautiful and a useful book.