A long-suffering kid draws the bars of his own cage, in Woodrell’s tender and downright merciless seventh novel (after Tomato Red, 1998).
The author’s previous work reaped praise for its depiction of Ozark lowlifes, as well as for capturing the inadvertent beauty of redneck speech. These elements are present again, but having 13-year-old Shuggie Akins narrate quells the comedy and heightens the pathos. The boy is an unresourceful Huck Finn, including even the brutal father but without the option of hopping on a raft and skipping town. Father Red’s orneriness (“he had a variety of ugly tones to speak in and used them all at me on most days”) is intensified by his not being Shuggie’s real father; and when not off “scallybippin’” with his one obsequious crony, or roughing up the family, Red makes the boy break into bed-ridden people’s homes to steal dope. Woodrell’s sketches of invalids are windows into tiny realms of helplessness. But the weirdest and most affecting moments come when Red is out of town (which is often) and attention shifts to Shuggie’s relationship with his mother Glenda, who, skimpily dressed, steadily downs her rum-and-cola “tea.” As caretakers isolated in the middle of a graveyard, mother and son address each other in creepily unorthodox ways: she calls him “hon,” he calls her Glenda: “Living alongside the gathered dead of our town was a thing me and Glenda never did fear ’cause we never done them no dirt when they lived.” The actual plot—in which Glenda tempts the wrath of Red with an ill-chosen affair—has trouble generating interest beside the eerie revelations of character and the artfully artless language: “Except for the noise of the tractor it rode about the way I figured some horses might. Except also for the stink of the smoke and gas and the noise when the gears gnashed.”
Such narration carries this novel—and it’s a weighty, worthwhile load.