Woodrell’s novel is set in 1960s Ozarks. I don’t know anything about the Ozarks but Wikipedia tells me that “It covers much of the southern half of Missouri and an extensive portion of northwestern and north central Arkansas. The region also extends westward into northeastern Oklahoma and extreme southeastern Kansas.”
Morris “Shug” Atkins is thirteen and lives with his mother Glenda and her boyfriend, Red. “The idea that Red was my dad,” says Shug “was the official idea we all lived behind, but I wouldn’t guess that any of us believed it to be an idea you could show proof of or wanted to.”
Red is an ex-con, a mean snake of a man who drinks and does drugs and abuses both Shug and his mother.
…Red was near only the height I was at that age, but a man. He had the muscles of a man and all those prowling hungers and meanesses…
Their lives are just about as miserable as you might imagine them to be.
The three of them live in a house that “looked like it had been painted with jumbo crayons by a kid with wild hands who enjoyed bright colours but lost interest fast” in the middle of a graveyard. In exchange for their dwelling, Shug maintains the cemetery – mowing and the like. Red contributes to the family’s meagre existence by sending Shug off to break into houses and steal pharmaceuticals. You know it’s only going to be a matter of time before Shug gets caught.
Shug’s mother, Glenda, is the sort of woman who will never “get too plain or too heavy. Her eyes were of that awful blue blueness that generally attaches to things seen at a distance.” She copes with Red’s nastiness by drinking rum and cola, her special “tea”.
None of the characters in The Death of Sweet Mister seem to hold out much hope for a brighter future, but then into the narrative drives Jimmy Vin Pearce. His shiny green T-Bird and his flashy clothes seem to signal hope, like maybe Glenda and Shug might be able to escape the smallness and meaness of their lives. But one day Shug comes home to find blood had “whirled and whirled in the kitchen.”
I loved the language of Woodrell’s book. I loved Shug’s voice. I felt tremendous sympathy for him. He is a product of his environment and so it’s not particularly surprising how his story concludes. Doesn’t make it any less sad, though.