THE DEATH OF SWEET MISTER by Daniel Woodrell; Putnam, 2001

Although the critics love him, Daniel Woodrell, easily one of the top twenty novelists currently working in this country, has yet to receive his due. Ang Lee’s excellent adaptation of Woodrell’s masterpiece, Woe To Live On, released as Ride With the Devil, seemed destined to bring the author out of the shadows, but for inexplicable reasons the movie was released with very little publicity and suffered a quick death at the box office. It’s since taken a new life on video and DVD, but Woodrell remains one of American Literature’s best-kept secrets.

Combining the taut lyricism of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and the edgy, fatalistic world-view of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, Daniel Woodrell, has almost single-handedly created his own genre—“the country noir.” Returning to the Ozarks setting of his two previous novels, Give Us a Kiss and Tomato Red, The Death of Sweet Mister is perhaps his darkest and most disturbing novel to date. The narrator is a lonely fat kid of 13 named Shuggie Akins growing up in West Table, Missouri. His father, Red, is a cruel and abusive ex-con who openly despises his son. His mother, Glenda, a boozy, big-haired sex pot, teases and taunts her son with her sexuality.

Throughout the course of the novel, Red and his group of ne’er do well friends try to initiate Shuggie into the life of petty crime, mocking his awkwardness and reluctance, while at the same time Glenda’s provocations become more and more brazen. Enter into this picture city slicker Jimmy Vin Pearce, with his fancy clothes and shiny T-Bird. He and Glenda soon begin to have an affair, which sets the novel on a swift and violent course to an inevitable conclusion. This is Woodrell in top form: beautifully-written, authentic, and unsettling as hell.

-Patrick Millikin


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