Monday, June 13, 2011

The Death of Sweet Mister - Disturbing Noir

When I taught a creative writing class a while back, I showed a number of magazines as examples of good reading. One was a double issue of Tin House, which offered stories of hope in one half and stories of dread when flipped over.

"I bet I know which side you liked best," someone chimed in.

It may have had something to do with the tone of some of the assigned reading.

I do tend to lean a little toward darker fiction, falling back on the Kafka admonition that we should read novels that stab us.

I think I'm still bleeding from Daniel Woodrell's  The Death of Sweet Mister, a rural noir excursion that pre-dates Winter's Bone. It rivals Jim Thompson or James M. Cain for dark brilliance, overlaid with a bit of Faulkner.

The Sweet Mister of the title is Morris Akins, known as Shuggie. He's the only son of Glenda, a sultry dark-haired beauty, who's wed to a violent petty criminal named Red.

Shuggie is a perceptive and resourceful 13-year-old, wise beyond his years but trapped by Red's brutality and Glenda's dependence on him.

He and his mother live in a house in a cemetery where Glenda and Shuggie serve essentially as grounds keepers while Red and a slightly more compassionate friend, Basil, spend most of their time devising small time schemes to garner money or drugs including prescription pain pills.

Shuggie's roped into several criminal efforts and complies passively, while shouldering more than a 13-year-old's share of responsibilities with Glenda.

Shuggie's dark, shattering character arc is the core of the novel and Woodrell unfolds it with occasional hints and a progression of illustrative events including one humiliating birthday experience for Glenda that rounds out a depiction of Red's character as well.

The title and subject matter suggest tragedy, but Woodrell twists the story in unexpected directions as Glenda begins an affair with a suave chef a a local spot who has aspirations toward returning to better restaurants.

When the book reaches its ending, all of the pieces fit perfectly, and all of the motivations are clear, prepared for and compelling.

It's indeed a novel that drives its cold blade deep, and it would definitely skew in the direction of dread.

What writer's should look for:
Woodrell's careful preparation for the ending through a mixture of character and events. This is a compelling read that employs the very best elements of genre fiction and character-driven literary fiction.


Charles Gramlich said...

I too lean toward the darker side, but less and less as I grow older.

Erik Donald France said...

Thanks for the review. I agree with you and Kafka, amid the mix.

Sidney said...

Yeah, Charles, I've mellowed a little, and I am, above all eclectic, but I can be titled back to the dark by something like this other dark things that make you say "Wow!" that was extreme but it was well done.

You're welcome, Erik!

Hope said...

Pretty helpful material, much thanks for this article.

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