Thursday, June 5, 2008

Dawns that break wrong. . .

"I'd say no dawns ever did break right over her and me again."

-Shug

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.

6 comments:

____Maggie said...

I love your review! I waited until after I read it before commenting.

Ugh, is right! I was thinking, Shug was going to be beat up and left for dead. I was sure the fishing was his last breath, but no, we are left with the ambiguous ending.

I figured Woodrell would go down the incestuous hwy with Shug's unmotherly comments as in the shorts being unmotherly in attire. What threw me was the opening scene and trying to place it back in the timeline of the rest of the story. (He talks about her wearing some unmotherly attire at the beginning during the road trip, too.) They are in the truck at the beginning and then the truck reappears in the latter part of the book. Shug is painting it blue from its yellow color in the beginning. So there is a whole section we are missing, b/c at the end of the story the truck reappears and is two-tone yellow and white. Instead of assuming it was just repainted I think it is the original factory two-tone, but then again it could be a totally different truck. Did I miss something?

jo ellen said...

imay have to read this book.. really good review

____Maggie said...

It is a totally different truck! Hubby finished the book this afternoon, and told me I was all wrong. It was a white truck at the beginning not two-tone. I reread it and dang I hate being wrong. :P

LeeLee said...

Maggie, I was sure every frog mentioned was building up to what they were going to do to Shug--there is so much tension in this novel, huh? Do you think Red was Shug's father? Was that clearly established or left open? I completely missed the truck details; I thought they were always in a new stolen car so I didn't connect any of the trucks! The ending really threw me, though--you're right--the whole narrative is Glenda obsessed (just like Glenda). I totally bought the title and was sure Shug was toast so I was trying to keep an emotional distance from the kid.

LeeLee said...

Jo Ellen, Tomato Red is easier to latch on to...is all I'm saying. I'm about ready to clear out of the trailer park for a few books, myself.

Keetha said...

Goodness. That sounds, as you said, compelling, yet disturbing. Hmmm. Great review - makes you stop and think!