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  • TITLE: Tomato Red
  • AUTHOR: Daniel Woodrell
  • PUBLICATION YEAR: 1998
  • AWARDS:
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You see the insides of a classier world . . . and it sets your own to spinning off-balance, and a tireless gnawing discontent gets to snacking on your guts and spirit. This caliber of a place makes you want to discriminate against yourself, basically as it reveals you as such a loser. A tiny mote of nothin' much just here to muss up the planet these worthies lived so grandly on . . .

I ain't shit! I ain't shit! Shouts your brain . . .

Oh, hell yes, this mansion was a regular theme park of fancy fuckin' stuff I never had, never will, hadn't ever truly even seen in person.

--p. 11

 

From the opening scene, the die is cast and boundaries set in cement. This is a book about society's bottom feeders, and if you're looking for a Steinbeckian vision of the down-trodden, look elsewhere. The setting is the Ozarks, in a backwoods ditch called Venus Holler where “small, square homes leaned sideways a bit like a bunch of drunks who can't quite hear each other”(p.39). It is essentially the tangle of 4 characters: Sammy Barlach, the 1st person protagonist stumbling fresh into town, hot in pursuit of a life of “sincere poverty and various spellbinding mishaps”(p.18), but, deep-down, really needing to bond and feel accepted somewhere; Jamalee, a late teen and the redhead of the title, wearing graveyard black lipstick and “fancy-pants ghoul makeup” around “bossy gray hue [eyes], born to issue orders and have them followed to the letter”(p.17); her younger brother Jason, a boy so “beautiful” with his “bone and sinew in the most fabulous order”, that “grown women at the grocery store toss him their panties with their home phone numbers marked on in lipstick”(p.20); and the mother of these two would-be miscreants, Bev Merridew, an easy-back, do-anything “Barbie who has gone to seed on roadhouse whiskey and panfried chicken”(p.43).

Jamalee is the stirmaster and she's fixated on “flight to more civilized area codes”(p.156). Jason is the bait. His mouth-melting good looks will open those gilded, French doors of the wealthiest men and women. She sees Sammy as dumb muscle—at most “a third-string brother”(p.158) to bolster their back. Bev takes the role of the jaded Madam, lounging in Fredrick's lingerie, foul-mouthing a philosophy “pretty international in attitude”(p.178) that is bone weary yet clever. “Oh, baby Jam—you need to take you a whole day off from whining, sometime, and grow the fuck up during it”(p.127), she says to her intense and petulant daughter.

The accomplishment of Tomato Red is the colloquial, narrative voice of Sammy. Author Woodrell's off-balance and distinguishing dialogue fills you with his character, pitting your stomach with despair yet leaving enough enzymes of hope to endear the hopelessly-flawed longings of his “kick-around mutt”(p.1) of a life. There is honor here—and truth—but the most precious commodity among this gristle of poverty and ignorance is loyalty. The lesson is that the lines of prejudice are too deeply drawn; the contrasts too entrenched to change; survival means isolation or swallowing-back the “tireless, gnawing discontent”(p.11) while you work assembly-line at the Happy Bark Dog Food Factory. The bile on both sides just gets more sour and the other side has all the blessings. There's only family to depend on, and to a guy like Sammy in a “poorly decorated life”(p.10) without parents or friends, getting ditched is the worst betrayal ever. “I came all the way in,”(p.221) he says at the end.

 

Then she moved backwards, deeper into the shadow. All I could see was that she was barely there, like something you almost recall: the Pledge of Allegiance, your daddy's real name.

“Come on in, Sammy. Share the stink.”

--p.47

 

Appropriately, he goes all the way out. “I reckon I always had been huntin' for a place to plant my feet and go down swinging.”(p.216).

 

 

© copyright 03/14/2013 by Larry Crawford

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