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The Death of Sweet Mister

The Death of Sweet Mister

3.7 9
by Daniel Woodrell

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Daniel Woodrell delivers his most powerful work to date in The Death of Sweet Mister.

An overweight, lonely thirteen-year-old, Shuggie Akins is shrewdly observant. But not even he can fully comprehend the nature of the forces working against him. His distracted, frequently tipsy mother, Glenda, turns a blind eye to the effect her sexually provocative


Daniel Woodrell delivers his most powerful work to date in The Death of Sweet Mister.

An overweight, lonely thirteen-year-old, Shuggie Akins is shrewdly observant. But not even he can fully comprehend the nature of the forces working against him. His distracted, frequently tipsy mother, Glenda, turns a blind eye to the effect her sexually provocative teasing has on him. His putative father, Red, a brutal man with a short fuse, mocks and despises the boy. The three tentatively coexist in a ramshackle house situated in a "boneyard" in a rough-hewn Ozark town. Then along comes Jimmy Vin Pearce with his shiny green T-bird and his smart city clothes. Soon he and Glenda are engaged in a torrid affair setting in motion a series of events that are violent, shocking, and totally unpredictable-yet irredeemably inevitable.

Like Holden Caulfield and Huck Finn, Shuggie Akins tells his story of a reluctant descent into the world of adults in this unforgettable and ultimately moving novel.

Author Biography: Daniel Woodrell is the author of six widely acclaimed novels, including Tomato Red, for which he received a PEN West fiction award in 1998.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Woodrell's seventh novel is easily his darkest -- which is something of an accomplishment, considering the general timbre of his work. Father of the "country noir," Woodrell has managed to accrue a devoted cult of readers, writers, and critics that include the likes of Dennis Lehane, Ron Hansen, James Ellroy, and Charles Frazier, while remaining a well-kept secret from the book-buying public.

The Death of Sweet Mister tells the chilling story of 13-year-old Shug Akins, a "fat boy" living in the Missouri backwoods with his trampy but essentially well-intentioned mother Glenda, and Red, an elusive, abusive, pill-popping parolee who may or may not be his father. Forced to commit petty crimes ("men stuff") with Red and his pal Basil, and taunted by Glenda's suggestive manner, Shug navigates the marshy swamp of adolescence with little more than his own intuition to guide him. When a T-bird-driving chef named Jimmy Vin Pearce arrives in town, however, Glenda sees her chance for change and begins a reckless affair that sets in motion a course of events at once horrifying and inevitable.

Shug's voice is so charged with sincerity, his developing sense of self so believable, that it is impossible not to read this novel in one sitting. Woodrell writes potently about the air of sexuality and violence surrounding the family, but The Death of Sweet Mister never depicts their behavior gratuitously; instead, Woodrell slyly compels the reader to conjure up the disturbing acts of his characters without ever having to describe them. We imagine what his characters imagine, and in doing so, we come face to face with parts of ourselves we either buried long ago or never dared consciously to confront. (Cary Goldstein)

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best Books 2001
Dramatically rich and morally complex.
Charles Frazier
A dark, disturbing beauty of a story...Woodrell throws down sentences that will leave you amazed.
Becky Ohlsen
...an awful tale of evil and despair, but so gorgeously rendered that it breaks your heart in two ways at once.
Lawrence Block
Wonderful characters, but it is the voice of Shug that makes this book such a joy to read, and people who read it will tell you what a wonderful ear Daniel Woodrell has....I can't wait to see what he'll write next.
Washington Post Book World
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Woodrell (Tomato Red) excels at depicting the seedy side of Southern living, and in this brooding coming-of-age tale he revisits the hardscrabble Ozarks town of West Table, Mo., his dark, insistently realist prose packing a visceral punch. Overweight 13-year-old Shuggie Atkins, sharp and cynical for his age, lives in a ramshackle house situated in a "bone yard" with his perpetually drunk and dreamy mother, Glenda, and his savage stepfather, Red. Despite Red's hot temper, Glenda's tendency to behave foolishly and Shuggie's frustrations, their lives settle into a rough-hewn rhythm: Red comes and goes as he pleases; Shuggie tends to the graveyard grass and helps Red steal painkillers from helpless cancer patients; and Glenda sips her "tea" cocktails and flirts with Shuggie. Then balding but classy Jimmy Vin Pearce roars into their lives in a shiny green T-bird and begins an affair with Glenda. Overcome by jealousy, Shuggie must decide should he betray his mother or grant her happiness? Woodrell displays his characters in an unforgiving light, never succumbing to the urge to romanticize them. Through unsparing prose and deft characterization, he conveys the harsh philosophy best summed up in one of Glenda's rare bits of motherly advice: "You wake up in this here world, my sweet li'l mister, you got to wake up tough. You go out that front door tough of a mornin' and stay tough 'til lights out have you learned that?" Woodrell's merciless realism is shot through with humor and rural wisdom; his work may not be to everyone's taste, but his bleak world is rendered with consummate artistry. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Woodrell's six previous novels (Tomato Red) have gathered more acclaim in Europe than at home, but Putnam is hoping that the situation will change with this new novel. Set in Woodrell's native Missouri hill country, it presents one eventful summer in the life of Shug, a friendless, overweight 13-year-old living with his mother in the caretaker's cottage at the local cemetery. Glenda flirts incessantly, even with her son, who is becoming increasingly aware of her charms. Glenda's husband, Red (who may or may not be Shug's father), comes and goes, bringing money occasionally and strife a lot more often. This summer Red is training Shug in the family business, using the juvenile without a record to perform the burglaries that are getting too risky for Red himself. Shug's efforts to protect his mother from Red, from other admirers, and from her own rash decisions come to a head one hot summer night. The gritty realism of this quick, compelling read won't be to every taste, but Woodrell's latest novel is recommended for public libraries. Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll., OH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Shuggie Akins, an awkward 13-year-old, lives with his mother and Red in a caretaker's house on graveyard grounds. Red's been married to Glenda since Shug was born, but it's uneasily, tacitly understood that he is not the boy's biological father. A small-time crook, the physically and verbally abusive man steals everything from televisions to shipments of silk blouses. For recreation, he forces Shug to creep into the houses of terminally ill people and rob them of their prescription drugs. At one point, Shug witnesses the funeral of a small boy, one of the victims of Red's thieving. One night, Red gambles away Glenda's stolen silk blouse and demands that she remove it in front of Shug and the winner of the bet. Glenda seems to dote on her son, but never enough, of course, to remove them from the situation. She calls him her "sweet mister"-sort of a cross between the clich s of a "true gentleman" and a "knight in shining armor." She's physically affectionate with him, and her behavior infuses Shug with a kind of seething, uncomfortable lust. While his relationship with Red is openly brutal, it is the relationship with his mother that is the more dangerous and fascinating. Woodrell is an absolute master at building tension in relaxed prose, and the novel has a haunting and wonderful force. Events churn to a head when Glenda meets a slick, citified man with a shiny Thunderbird, and decides to leave Red-and Shug-for the promises he offers. Sweet mister's death, for the record, is a figurative one, yet it feels more tragic than a literal one.-Emily Lloyd, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Michael Anderson
"[Woodrell] has achieved near mastery of style: language, plot, characterization and theme mesh with a seamless power."
Bharat Tandon
"The plot, tawdry in the abstract, is transformed by Woodrell's gallows humour and his rendering of Shug's voice, part Huck Finn, part Holden Caulfield."
Bret Israel
"A fiery, poetic, hair-raising novel."

Product Details

Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.44(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt


RED MADE ME GET OUT and paint the truck another color once we'd crossed the state line. His voice to me seemed always to have those worms in it that eat you once you're dead and still. His voice always wanted to introduce me to them waiting worms. He had a variety of ugly tones to speak in and used them all at me on most days. He whipped off a skinny country rock road and dove the truck down a slope of plain young weeds towards a creek that slobbered and swung under some trees for shade and parked. Glenda, which was my mom, rolled between him and me in the cab, smelling of her "tea," as she called her rum and colas, and last night's sweat and this morning's perfume, her head pretty often soft on my shoulder and her breaths going up my nose. The weather had looped around to where it was good again, too good to last long, and had prompted blossoms to unclench and wild flowers to pose tall and prissy amongst the weeds, plus it brought forth song birds and bumble bees and all the likewise shit of spring. The tree patch we'd swung under blocked the eyesight of any decent folks who might pass along on that rock road and gain a curiosity about us if we were available to be seen. Our ways often required us to not be seen. Red had pulled something fairly wrong in a white truck down in Arkansas and wished to be driving a blue one back in Missouri.

"So hop your fat ass out, boy, and start tapin' those newspapers over the windows. I've showed you how before."

"And I learned it when you showed it."

"Well? So set your flab to wigglin' and get out there and go at it, boy."

Glenda listened to him with her eyes shut and her head on my shoulder. Her pale right hand, which was elegant and fast, snapped like a clothespin onto the pudge at my equator and pinched hard, pinched my flab extra hard, this pain reminding me silently to stand up tough to her husband.

She said, "Don't belittle him so that way."

He said, "Which way?"

"Shuggie's not fat."

"The hell he ain't."

Glenda sat upright and flubbed her lips, so gorgeous even with a sleepy face and hardly any makeup. She had hair the color they call raven, and it had been back-combed and puffed up and out and sprayed to a certain round firmness. This was her fancy dolled-up style of hair instead of her usual, which was just drooping loose. Glenda never would get too plain or too heavy. Her eyes were of that awful blue blueness that generally attaches to things seen at a distance, far away, far out yonder on the water, or way way up.

"Maybe," she said, "portly, but not..."

"Aw, bull-shit!" Red shoved his door open and it squawked. "Your boy ain't nothin' but fat." He slammed the door, then ducked his head in through the window. He looked at her and said, "What in hell are you smilin' about?"

"If only to avoid wrinkle lines," she said, "I have chosen to appear happy." She pinched me again and winked my way. Red turned and went to the truck bed and started tossing out tape and paint and papers. "Is there any tea left in my thermos, Shug?"

"Yeah. I mixed it fresh in the parking lot back at that cafŽ."

"Hand it here, baby. I hear a thirst stomping towards me, think I best meet it halfway."

I did hand that tea to her, then I did get out and grab up the papers and the tape Red had tossed. I took the papers and spread them over the glass windshield and side windows, then used my teeth to pull the tape loose. The tape rolled out with a sound like sneezes.

Red stood paces from me near the biggest close bush and pissed piss-lashes at it while singing one of those old songs that once in a while showed up on the radio even that year, which was way after them tunes had got stale. The song was of the "Ready Teddy" or "Tutti Frutti" or "Good Golly, Miss Molly" type of olden rhyming rock'n roll. Olden rhyming tunes to which he was yet and forever dedicated, I'd say. I could not say what had got him to singing or why. This trip to Hot Springs was one of those so many many times when him and Glenda were supposed to patch things up between them and get on the level as married folks again, which they never did do.

I'd become thirteen that year and 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 meannesses. You might have taken him to be a wrestler or a Viking or such from the muscles he carried. His hair was the color you'd expect, but a red of so odd a red that it gave a slight comic-book or circus angle to him. You could see skin shine between the hairs of his head, and the thin amount of hairs left were slicked into a bump, a thin bump of hair combed aloft slick like rockin' greasers of the prior decade, to which he was loyal as to style.

He lashed that bush with four or five cups of coffee he'd drunk at breakfast and kept singing. The song was along the lines of "Lawdy Lawdy Clawdy" or some such. He'd sang it before within my hearing but I never paid attention.

Nice and quick I had the driver's window and the windshield covered by newsprint and all taped down by masking tape. This made a darkness in the cab and that got Glenda to slide out, her yellow skirt slipping high on her legs, carrying her silver thermos. She sat on a thick patch of green weeds in the morning sun with her skirt spread ladylike and watched me. She watched me tape the last side window and the rear window, then pick up the paint. It was spray paint, blue, and there was only four dinky cans.

I started spraying at the hood and tried to keep my fingertip light on the trigger but there was a breeze like baby breath and the paint drifted a small amount. At that moment I noted that I'd not taped over the headlights and had speckled them blue some. I rubbed at the speckles with my shirttail and tried to be sneaky about it but Red saw.

"Fat boy! You dumbshit, I'll knock fire from your ass, dig?"

"I'm wipin' it...."

"You stupid twat. You can't do one simple fuckin' thing right, can you?"

"Red? Red, my God, don't talk to our son that way-you'll get him twisted."

"Our son, my ass."

Glenda eased away a little, her eyes on his fists, which could flurry so swift.

Red slapped me on the back of the head.

The idea that Red was my dad 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. I was his only child and likely I wasn't his and that likeliness naturally did not serve to mellow his attitude much. His attitude stayed at simmer or scorch on all subjects that I know of but olden rhyming rock'n roll. He carried young love for that music and some sort of crashed but still moving wrecked love for Glenda, but that was it that I know about.

I taped over the headlights. There wouldn't be enough paint in those cans anyhow. Trucks were of full-grown size back then and four dinky cans wouldn't hardly do a fine job of making a full-grown truck another color from the color it started as.

Glenda raised her face and smelled deep so her chest rose and wiggled nice, and said, "Days such as this don't come in a row much, so you be sure to wallow in this one all you can, sugar."

There was a variety of smells that bode well in the air. Cute plants were all about and perky up and down the slopes and gullies. Fine spring days such as that got the animals to frolic and chirp like they'd each just inherited stuff that put them on easy street.

"That's a lot of tea this early," I said. "The rule is lunch first, before tea."

"This is a trip, Shug. There's no rules on trips."

Red spit and scuffed his boots in the dirt.

I sprayed and hunched and watched Glenda lift and pour from the silvery thermos to her silvery cup, then sip. She lived even her goofy moments with style, a strain of bravery showed in the smallest of her acts. She needed to bounce often in her days and knew how to bounce and bounce back, which I never truly did. I dented and rolled but hardly ever bounced in her style, and that did not help.

The color of the truck had halfway become another one, a slight blue with small fades to white. The paint lent a hospital smell to the air. The smell moved along in quick drifts. I got to spraying the fenders, toward the truck bed gate, and this shadow fell beside me so I looked and there stood Red, with his shirt off and his angry face on. His chest hairs were red curls, spongy with sweat even in good weather. His appearance was of someone so strong!

"Very sneaky, fatso."


"When I say fatso, daddy-o, I'm talkin' to you, dig? Ain't you noticed you're fatter'n shit?"

"Uh-huh. But you said sneaky."

He pointed down to the flat of the truck bed. Freckles of paint had blown from where I aimed and come down on the bed. Enough freckles fell that you might say swipes of paint showed.

"You think that'll fool anybody? A shitty job like that? You think a shit job of paintin' like that'll keep me out of the pen if we was to run up on a roadblock, or just get pulled over? I'd have to use this." He bent and thumped his right boot where he kept a secret vicious pistol. "And that'd be uncalled for, and on your head, fatso."

Glenda said, "Red, honey, come here."

For her to call him honey hurt both of us but she could see he was clouding up over me. She knew how that went. I knew to be alert for his left fist to come at my tummy. I knew to fall down and act destroyed if the fist landed.

"You'd like it if they run me back to the pen, huh, boy? You'd like to make a couple of fuck-ups that got me a nickel bit in the pen, or more'n that, even. Why not life, huh?"

I never answered, for what deeply stung me that day was when Glenda stood up and swished over and stood between us and did her entire girly-girl act of heaving chest and batted eyes and comely dimples that showed as bookends to her smiles. She leaned against that man and purred. She smelled his chest of wet red hairs and hummed a "My, oh my" hum of girly-girl invitation. She stroked his arm with her lovely fingers.

Finally he took his attention from me and gave it to her. He flicked fingertips at her nipples. She managed a smile and he put a hand under her right tit and bounced it in his palm like a newborn that ain't been burped yet. When she didn't make a face like usual that said go away he reached down and pulled her yellow skirt up and where he touched her and how he touched her made her inviting expression shrink and she said, "Uh, uh-careful. Be careful."

"Or else what?"

I only just stood there, paint can in hand with my mouth probably fallen open.

Then the kissing started, which I know hurt us both.

She wouldn't look at me.

She led him away and in amongst the bushes. I tried to spray. They got back amongst the bushes and I heard the sound of his boots being tugged off. She made grunts when they tugged free. There were a couple of snickers I guess were lusty and a buckle noise. The paint was running out as I sprayed too much at the sky, the grass, my own left hand. I could hear skin slap skin and those various groans. I would have rather took a beating. He thrashed away at her all noisy and in command and she gasped sweet horseshit back to him.

I turned to the truck and pushed the paint trigger.

Screaming just then came loud to my heart but I knew better, I knew better and only hung my head and wished I had fewer ears and kept spraying blue paint.

The screams I bottled that time and all the times similar waited and waited to be loosed, until the time they were.

I wish I could add none of this happened.

—From The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell.(c) May 2001, Putnam Pub Group, used by permission.

What People are Saying About This

Ron Hansen
With Daniel Woodrell's new novel, the sole inventor of country noir has written another classic. At once satiric and considerate, violent and humane, The Death of Sweet Mister turns the petty crimes and vices of his poor Ozark whites into a strangely poignant drama that's as stunning and evocative as ancient Greek tragedy. My congratulations to Mr. Woodrell for a wonderful book.
Dennis Lehane
I can't remember coming across a more precise evocation of innocence lost since Golding's The Lord of the Flies. With The Death of Sweet Mister, Daniel Woodrell has written his masterpiece -- spare, dark, and incandescently beautiful. It broke my heart.
Kaye Gibbons
The Death of Sweet Mister holds its own against anything in the canon of American literature. This is a book I'd place alongside Faulkner's The Reivers or Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted River.
George P. Pelecanos
Daniel Woodrell's The Death of Sweet Mister is nakedly honest, unsettling, pitch perfect, and uniquely American. Put it on the shelf alongside Faulkner, Jim Thompson, and Cormac McCarthy. With this one, Mr. Woodrell has earned himself a piece of immortality.
Charles Frazier
The Death of Sweet Mister is a dark, disturbing beauty of a story, told in the language of a master prose stylist. Woodrell throws down sentences that will leave you amazed.

Meet the Author

Five of Daniel Woodrell's eight published novels were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Tomato Red won the PEN West Award for the Novel in 1999. Woodrell lives in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line with his wife, Katie Estill.

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The Death of Sweet Mister 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
ReadersFavorite More than 1 year ago
Reviewed by Anne B. for Readers Favorite "The Death of Sweet Mister" by Daniel Woodrell is a well-written, entertaining but gloomy book. In it we meet Shug Akins, a thirteen year old overweight young man. He and his mother, Glenda, live rent free in a mobile home for taking care of the cemetery next door. When not in jail, Red lives with them. He is a brutal, abusive man who hates Shug. Red forces Shug to break into the homes of dying people and steal their pain killers. Glenda is an attractive young woman; she dresses in provocative clothing. Glenda is the only one who has ever loved Shug. Jimmy Vin Pearce arrives in town driving a green T-bird; soon he and Glenda are having a sizzling affair. I was quickly drawn into Shug’s life. The poor boy is blatantly abused, emotionally, mentally and physically, by Red. In a more elusive manner he is abused by his mother. Shug is at that special age where he isn’t a man and yet he isn’t a child. His mother dresses provocatively in front of him and doesn’t even try to hide her sexual exploitations from him. She gives him alcohol and allows him to drive her car. Although she knows Red hates the boy she allows the abusive man to take Shug “fishing.” This tale is cruel and bleak. Author Daniel Woodrell is a genius. I have never read a book that brought out such passionate anger in me. There is no happy ending to this story and yet it is a compelling read. This is a review of the audio version. The reader is Dennis LeHane. His voice is filled with passion in just the right places. This is a must read book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In the same vein as Nowhere Near the Sea of Cortez(Jim Harris) and Carmac McCarthy, Woodrell captures dark, poetic lower class images, sounds, words, better than any writers out there, with the exception of Harris. But both these writers are in a class by themselves with spare, phenomenal word plays and fascinating explorations of poor folk. Take Sherwood Anderson and throw in Raymond Carver and a heavy dose of Bukowski. A brilliant writer.
JustMyTwoCents More than 1 year ago
Gritty and Frightening -- A Tragedy from Page One As horrible as the subject matter was, as gritty as the material was, I could not put this book down.  It is a frightening reminder that monsters are made and not born. This one will stay with me for a long time. I'll look for more from this author-- but I may need to read something more light-hearted in between!
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