Dennis Lehane (in his introduction to the recent reissue of Daniel Woodrell’s The Death of Sweet Mister): “He writes with such poetic clarity his prose seems to have been scrubbed in a cold stream.”
This praise seems like the kind one of Woodrell’s own characters might heap on someone. The words “scrubbed” and “stream” even evoke two of Woodrell’s own particular literary gifts: his descriptions of nature are beautiful and always surprising, and his ability to use perfect and unusual words like “scrubbed” somewhere you’d never consider them belonging is unparalleled. His words do feel scrubbed. Reading The Death of Sweet Mister was like taking a long walk somewhere beautiful but dangerous, where admiring the scenery could distract you long enough to fall off the edge of a precipice.
Woodrell’s writing is dangerous because while he’s creating complex characters who elicit intimacy, pity, joy, and wonder he’s using his own unique and intoxicating diction to his advantage in creating plot pitfalls that simply destroy them. This is dangerous reading for anyone who falls in love with beautiful characters. After reading some Woodrell you know to always be on edge during his novels- what will he do with the empathy he’s built inside you? In The Death of Sweet Mister this empathy turns into ugly doubt after the observation of human ugliness.
The protagonist of The Death of Sweet Mister is a thirteen-year-old boy, Shug, whose devolution, reversal of innocence, and transition from mischief to willful harm is chronicled. The tension between his “sweetness” and the idea of masculinity that surrounds him breaks Shug and sends him into a final, hellish spiral from which he can never recover. Shug’s intense loneliness, jealousy, and repressed violence contrast the little boy, little son, he should be. And Woodrell’s masterful stroke is illustrating how Shug can be all that he is- son, victim, betrayer- and feel real.