Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes

Daniel Woodrell
Tomato Red
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2005

Plume/Penguin Putnam
US Trade Paperback
ISBN: 0-452-28194-6
Publication Date: Plume — October, 2000
Hardcover Publication Date: 1998
225 Pages; $13.00
Date Reviewed: April 26, 2005

Index: Mystery  General Fiction

Daniel Woodrell invites readers to join up with a rag-tag group of ne'er do well rednecks in Venus Holler, the wrong side of the tracks in the Ozark town of West Table, Missouri, a whole town that is itself on the wrong side of the tracks. The chief redneck is felon and aimless drifter, Sammy Barlach, who manages to hook up with brother and sister Jason and Jamalee Merridew. It's a trio made for trouble, and that's exactly what they get themselves into. Some of the trouble is clearly of their own making; some of the trouble is rooted in the stigma of their place in life, and some of the trouble is simply because they can't, between the three of them, buy a break. And from the first sentence, which is a breathtaking page and a half long, you know you're going to get in trouble right along with them. Woodrell's language is so original, so evocative and so bluesy, you eagerly tag along knowing the ending will be bad, but unwilling to miss out on the ride.

Sammy Barlach, recently released from prison, is drawn to them-that-will-have-him in the trailer-trash section of West Table. On a dare and fueled by drugs, drink and lust, Sammy breaks in to an upscale house whose owners are out of town. That's where he meets up with Jamalee, a tiny young woman of questionable psychological stability with "tomato red" hair, and her brother Jason, the "prettiest boy in the Ozarks". Seems Jam and Jason have also broken into the house, but for an entirely different reason. Jam aspires to a better life, a life of wealth and luxury well away from Venus Holler, and figures the best way to prepare for that eventuality is to get accustomed to the surroundings and finery of the upper classes. So, Jason in tow, Jamalee breaks into rich folks' houses, dons their clothes and jewelry, admires their art, and eats with their fine silver, figuring that since wealth isn't trickling down, it might at least rub off. Jason is her reluctant partner in crime, pretty but passive. Sammy, on the other hand, with his felonious past and demonstrated breaking and entering skills, could be the ticket to her dreams.

Woodrell lets Sammy tell this story and his first person narrative is a perfect mix of hillbilly idiom and hard-luck misery. Sammy is unsophisticated and often crude, but he's also a perceptive observer of the realities of the under classes and the often laughable oddities of his fellow hayseeds. He describes Jam's mother, a lusty, aging prostitute, as a woman whose motto is "Live fast, learn slow". He quotes Jamalee's directive "We weren't raised with decent values. We'll have to memorize some on our own." Sammy's narration is beguiling, full of off-handed wisdom ("she was barely there, like something you almost recall: the Pledge of Allegiance, your daddy's real name") and winsome insight.

'Tomato Red' is a story of plainspoken people with dreams that never stand a chance of coming true, scratching out a life that's as ratty and dented as the old pick-up trucks they drive. Woodrell's original prose and earthy humor hold the narrative one step above despair and his honesty and authenticity invest his hopeless characters with appealing dignity. His language is simply brilliant, poignant, occasionally crude and almost always hilarious. He generates palpable energy and excitement that is rooted as much in the storytelling as in the story itself. Read 'Tomato Red' for its language and it's truly original voice; it's pure, knock-out hillbilly noir.

Review Archive
All Reviews alphabetized by author.

General Fiction
Non-Genre, general fiction and literature.

Supernatural fiction, supernatural horror and non-supernatural horror.

Science Fiction
Science fiction, science fantasy, speculative fiction, alternate history.

Fantasy, surrealism and magic realism.

Crime, thrillers, mystery, suspense.

Non-Fiction, True Crime, Forteana, Reference.


Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us