Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Tomato Red

by Pa Rock

Novelist Daniel Woodrell lives and writes in the Ozarks community of West Plains, the county seat of Howell County, Missouri.   He refers to his writing style as “country noir,” and the novel, Tomato Red, certainly fits that tongue-in-cheek description of his literary form.  The novel is set in the slightly fictional Ozarks community of West Table in Howl County, Missouri, a place the author seems to know and understand remarkably well, even the notorious “Venus Holler” section of town which is located just over the tracks from the slightly more respectable portions of West Table.

I also know the setting fairly well myself, having lived in northern Howell County for several years when I was a young schoolteacher, and currently with a son and grandson residing in West Plains.  That history gives me a total appreciation for the critical eye and writing ability of Daniel Woodrell.  He presents his West Table and its drug- and life-addled inhabitants in a clear and acute manner.

The story:  Sammy Barlach is a druggie ex-con who has just turned up in West Table and is working at the local dog food plant.   During an afternoon of drinking he winds up following the suggestion of a bad angel and breaks into the home of some rich folks who are away on vacation.  The drunken Sammy falls asleep during the break-in and wakes up in the company of a couple of other house-breakers:  a young adult woman with tomato-red hair, Jamalee Merridew, and her seventeen-year-old gay brother, Jason, “the prettiest boy in the Ozarks.”  Jamalee decides that Sammy might be able to provide the necessary muscle to help her and Jason get where they need to be in life, and invites him to move in with them in Venus Holler.  Drop into that mix Jamalee and Jason’s occasional prostitute and snitch of a mother, Bev, who lives next door to her children in Venus Holler, the timely arrival of a gun, and an unfortunate incident with a group of mean rich people at the local country club, and tragedy becomes as unavoidable as the rumbling and screeching of the next passing train.

Woodrell’s characters are largely the mutts who live in the bottom cages of life’s big kennel, without hope of moving up and passively accepting what falls from above.    But when life suddenly throws something down on their heads that is too awful to deal with in a civilized manner, they rise up and lash out.   The angry response is almost as predictable as it is certain to end badly.

Tomato Red tells a good story, one that can be read in a couple of hours, but will disturb for days.  It is a window on poverty and social stratification in America, with a view that may be entertainingly lurid, but certainly not a neighborhood that fosters much in the way of hope.  On the one hand we know that Venus Holler is worlds away, but on the other we can see it standing defiantly, mocking our self-righteousness and property values, from just across the tracks.

And those tracks, like most material things in life, are only temporary.

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