THE DEATH OF SWEET MISTER
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. (May 21)
Forecast:Woodrell is a cult figure in England and elsewhere in Europe, where he was on the short list for the 2000 Dublin International Literary Award. Count on good reviews of this novel to raise his profile here.