Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Death of Sweet Mister a violent aria by a noir master

Book 48: The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell

"Him joining the group changed the feel of it the way one lit match does suddenly change the feel in a hay barn."

That sentence, with its odd, little rhythm and construction, which produces an awkward, yet stately tone, hiding the latent violence of the moment before laying it bare, is vintage Daniel Woodrell.

Woodrell, who sets his noir masterpieces in the Ozarks that he calls home, commands violence with the skill of a concert pianist.  The actual physical violence in Woodrell's The Death of Sweet Mister is limited or off the page.  But like the lit match in the barn, the threat of an explosion -- the suggestion that a quiet moment can become deadly in an instant -- is always present. And it is the threat of violence, its very imminence, that is Woodrell's canvass.

The "Him" in the quote above is Red, a particular unsavory piece of work, who inhabits violence like most men inhabit their skin. Red strikes out at his girlfriend, Glenda, or punches her teenage son, Shuggie, in the stomach with disturbing casualness. 

Perhaps even more disturbing is Red's constant verbal attacks on Shuggie, recruiting the boy to steal drugs from the home of sick men and women recently discharged from the hospital or his easy disregard for the boy's presence when he is having sex with Glenda or some other women.

Red is one of those men who wants what he wants when he wants. And when he's denied his desires, violence is his default setting.

But this story belongs to Shuggie, its narrator. His mother affectionately calls him her "Sweet Mister".  Shuggie despises Red and fears him, yet he is one of boy's few male role models. There is no other male figure in Shuggie's life to suggest that there are other ways to behave. 

The suggestion of violence is palpable throughout this slender novel.  The actual violence is tame by most stanrdards -- to a point.  And that point is reached in the novel's final pages when Shuggie undergoes a terrible and violence transformation.

A transformation that does, indeed, lead to the death of Sweet Mister.

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