Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Review of Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell (No Exit Press, 1998)
Sammy Barlach is a loser who's managed to get a job in the dog food factory in West Table, Missouri. His first Friday payday he ends up in a trailer court getting drunk and high. Soon its Sunday and trying to impress a girl he breaks into a deserted mansion. When his companions skedaddle he tucks into a bottle of vodka and settles down for a quick nap in his new found luxury. He’s woken by the diminutive Jamalee, with her tomato red hair, and beautiful Jason Merridew, a sister and brother dreaming of a better life and practising being rich. When the police arrive, the three hot foot down to Venus Holler, a ramshackle collection of houses on the wrong side of the tracks. Next to the place that Jamalee and Jason are housesitting lives their mother, Bev, whose approach to poverty is to turn tricks, look on the bright side of life, and party whenever the opportunity arises. It’s not a life that Jamalee aspires to and Jason, with his model looks, is her ticket to the American dream. Having lost his job, Sammy makes himself at home, pursuing the feisty Jamalee whilst taking to the bed of her mother. When Jason turns up dead in suspicious circumstances, and the cops want to record it as an accident, the three slackers mobilise to seek justice.
Tomato Red reads a bit like a social realist play, with its gritty realism and harsh truths, and small cast of well drawn characters. The dialogue and interactions between Sammy, Jamalee, Jason and Bev is pitch perfect, and Woodrell does an admirable job of immersing the reader in their world. As ever, the prose is nicely crafted, and Woodrell has a deft hand for turning expressive phrasing and sharing interesting observations and insights into social relations. Where the book falls a little short perhaps is with respect to plot, which is quite ponderous at times as if Woodrell is tentatively feeling his way, and the ending felt a little false and rushed. I’ve become a huge fan of Woodrell’s country noir; Tomato Red didn’t quite match some of his other works, but its still a fine, entertaining read.