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Daniel Woodrell’s latest offering, Tomato Red, is a fairy tale of a very particular sort. His work has in the past been described as a literary variety of crime fiction, and since he preoccupies himself with the Ozarks and the lower classes, it has also been described as “hillbilly noir.” Such descriptions bring to mind brutality, harsh realism, and a gritty, pugilistic prose that never pulls punches. Perhaps noir was actually never thus, but for a fact Tomato Red isn’t. It is lyrical, though often a bit too cute, and its sentiments and sensibility belong to an R-rated fairy tale suitable for adult tastes.
I will not quarrel with any energy with Woodrell’s fans; I admit from the start that it is easy to see why he has won so many of them. He writes interesting sentences. He’s a character buff who is willing to explore the psychological and spiritual territories inhabited by his protagonists for pages on end. Dialogue clearly thrills him, and those thrills are contagious. Woodrell also cottons to humor, often of a corrosive type, something any free spirit will embrace in this day of sonorous politically correct pieties. Moreover, he’s found a good story, and he is a gifted storyteller.
Tomato Red’s narrator, Sammy Barlach (tough guy, golden-hearted), arrives in trashy Venus Holler, Mo., where he encounters Jamalee, Jason, and Beverly Merridew. Bev is a prostitute (also golden-hearted) and the mother of Jamalee and Jason (both golden-hearted and, what is more, big-hearted). Jason, a lithe youth reputed to be the prettiest boy in the Ozarks, is a touch light in his loafers. Jamalee, his protective older sister, has hair the color of a vine-ripened, polished tomato. Pixieish and willful, Jamalee dreams of escaping Venus Holler and making a place for herself in a wider, lovelier world. When Sammy comes to town, he strikes her as a necessary component of her plan, a plan that basically amounts to transporting the beautiful Jason to more moneyed environs where he will service rich women and make a mint. She believes Sammy, lovable brute that he is, might come in handy in case anything turns ugly.
But, of course, things turn ugly long before they can shake the dust of Venus Holler. And they turn ugly because of the dolled-up denizens of the country-club side of town. After Jamalee, Jason, and Sammy tear up the country club golf course one night in order to avenge a series of slights, the rich folk (spoiled, undeserving, cold-hearted) enact their own counterrevenge strategy. It ends very badly for the golden-hearted.
There is a lot of fun to be had along the way, however. While in the local grocery, Bev, Sammy, Jason, and Jamalee realize they are being watched as if they were criminals. The tense scene surrenders to a volley of crisp and merry dialogue. Says Sammy: “Might be we should go outside. Wait at the car.” To which Bev responds: “Might be you should. I can hunt the bacon. Let’s see if we can get all the way home, though, without any warrants bein’ sworn out, huh?” “All the way?” Jam asks. And then Sammy again: “Yeah….Don’t set the pole too high for us, Bev.”
Sammy and Bev bed down soon enough (an act to which Bev refers as “midnight redneck therapy”), and a friendship flowers. Quips do, as well: “Bev, don’t you have any regrets?” Sammy asks after a session. Bev, as usual, gives as good as she gets: “Of course I do….I should’ve went blond younger. I regret that I didn’t.”
Sammy’s narrative runs along the same spry lines.Tomato Red begins:
You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main….
There is more such spirited writing throughout. A beer is described as tasting of gold “if gold had a taste.” After Sammy finally gets Jamalee, his true heart’s desire, in the sack, he is disappointed to discover the mood “was not the mood you hope for after sweaty business has gone on. It was as if from lifelong spite toward her mother she’d made a pledge to never enjoy sex much. I’d say her mom kind of got the better end of that stick.”
So far so good, but occasionally Woodrell goes farther. Sentences careen into a smart-aleck and coy tone. Snappy dialogue surrenders space to silly dialogue. The desire to tell a story with an edge becomes incessant posturing: Imagine Rebel Without a Cause starring the young Scott Baio. I am making things much worse than they are, for Woodrell is quite talented and has put together a pleasant and stimulating read that offers much to admire, but there is nonetheless something troubling about Tomato Red.
I suspect that what troubled me was the fact that Tomato Red suggests a fairy tale; yet I do not believe this was Woodrell’s intention. Fairy tales, at best, are worthwhile because they present a simplified picture of the world that brings into bold relief certain important motives, emotions, or principles. They are, of course, also worthwhile because they delightand delight in honest ways. Fairy tales are proudly fairy tales and do not masquerade as anything else.
Woodrell’s story is a fairy tale masquerading as hard-bitten, realistic fiction. But four-letter words, multiple couplings, and gun play do not amount to anything of the sort, and inserting such ingredients into a book doesn’t mean one isn’t engaged in fairy-telling. The atmosphere of Tomato Red is largely an interior of arid dreaminess. For that reason, however, the book simply doesn’t correspond to social circumstances in the way it purports toits social criticism isn’t layered or grounded. I have no quarrel with fairy tales and in fact prefer them to what commonly passes for “realistic” fiction (which is so often bad writing and old grudges, anywaywork that assuages the guilt of well-heeled readers and relieves the disgruntled writer of rage). What I am not taken with is confusion.
We are not meant to hear Sammy’s words as Sammy’s words only, but as words of more general authority. His gripes aren’t gripes about West Table, Mo., in particular, but about how the world works everywhere. Woodrell’s world is black-and-white: good poor people vs. bad rich people.
You know, the regular well-to-do world should relax about us types. Us lower sorts. You can never mount a true war of us against the rich ’cause the rich can always hire us to kill each other. Which they and us have done plenty, and with brutal dumb glee. Just toss a five-dollar bill in the mud and sip wine and watch our bodies start flyin’ about, crashing headfirst into blunt objects, and our teeth sprinkle from our mouths, and the blood gets flowing in such amusing ways. Naw, it’s always just us against usguess who loses?
That assessment is obviously true from time to time, and has been true from time to time since time immemorial. Nothing is as infuriating as a world painted over with a fraudulent shade of gray, a world in which everybody comes out a loser, by the way. But it is very complicated to reveal the stark contrast between good and bad. Fairy tales and fables do it one way; other genres must find other means.
Thus Woodrell’s dialogue can seem insipid at times. It is, in fact, fantastic, highly stylized, and a bit otherworldlydeeply pleasurable to readbut we sense that Woodrell wants it to be taken the way Sammy takes his whiskey: straight up, no chaser. CP