Saturday, April 09, 2011

Tomato Red a Woodrell classic

Book 39: Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

Writer Daniel Woodrell frightens me.  Not for the violence that is such a casual and accepted undercurrent in the lives of the characters who populate his novels, but for the accuracy of his observations. 

Tomato Red will be described as noir fiction, a hardboiled novel distinguished by its unsentimental portrayal of violence and sex. And it is that, but it is also a sociological study of class warfare in the tiny Ozark town of West Table, Missouri.

Americans like to believe that we are a classless society, but Woodrell knows that is far from true. He also knows that it is in the small towns that the distinctions of class are most closely felt and keenly observed. Everyone in West Table knows exactly who is above them and who is below them in society's pecking order.

And when you live in Venus Holler, like Jamalee Merridew, and your brother is country queer and your mother is the town whore, there is no one below you. It is Jamalee's desire to better herself that drives Woodrell's powerful story.

Our narrator, Sammy Barlach, an ex-con and classic loser, meets Jamalee and Jason in the course of a burglary. Fueled by drugs, Sammy clumsily breaks into a West Table mansion.  The brother and sister are already inside.  The pair break into rich folks' homes to learn their secrets, wear their clothes and to pretend they are something better.

Later, when Jamalee is ejected from the local country club where she has went to find a job, the three recruit a trio of pigs to vandalize the golf course.  In a town where the country club represents the pinnacle of social achievement, their actions trigger a series of tragic and violent events.

Woodrell is best known as the author of Winter's Bone, which was recently made into a superb film. He also wrote The Death of Sweet Mister, which is widely recognized as a noir classic. My copy of Tomato Red is a re-issue from Busted Flush Press, which was founded by the late David Thompson.

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