I’m a huge fan of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and have delved into his backlist before by reading his earliest works: the three books that comprise the Bayou Trilogy. Like most of the characters from those books, the central four characters of Tomato Red dwell in the fringes of society.
Tomato Red is told in first-person by an ex-con drifter and self-described “loser” named Sammy Barlach. The first-person narration is used to great effect, especially in the beginning and end of the novel. Sammy’s first words to the reader – “You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen” – starts us off on the tale of how Sammy fell into the company of the Merridew family. With hair the color of the book’s title, Jamalee Merridew is nineteen and wants out of her poverty-stricken life in Venus Holler. Her seventeen-year-old brother, Jason, possesses stunning good looks, and is also, perilously, gay. Their mom, Bev, earns her living as a prostitute; she is practical about her lot in life and disapproving of her daughter’s dreams. Woodrell’s depiction of Bev and Jamalee are very well-drawn, but it is the character of Sammy that has left an indelible impression on me.
Sammy’s mind is marked by poverty, lack of education and damaging familial neglect. He informs the reader early on, “I can’t sleep anywhere until I know I’ll get to eat again if I need to”. He is so desperate to belong, that he is instantly loyal to the Merridews, because they are “the bunch that would have me.” I found this heartbreaking. His desperation also manifests itself in a disconcerting tendency toward violence to those who cross him or the Merridews.
Sometimes Woodrell’s turn of phrase became too elaborate for my tastes, but sometimes the ambitious metaphors paid off. It’s not a comfortable book by any means, but the storytelling is magic. I am still haunted by Tomato Red.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
The Allure of Books – “The real stand out of his books, though, is the writing. Seriously – this man uses the sentence as a weapon. His use of language, humor, irony? It’s ridiculous. I love it.”
Animal My Soul – “The plot of Tomato Red is contrived and wayward with an ending that borders on melodrama. But the novel shows that Woodrell is a writer who can create a vivid and witty portrait of people you wouldn’t necessarily want to meet and places you wouldn’t much want to go to.”
Bella’s Bookshelves – “[Woodrell] ferrets out the darkness in places few people go, he lets in light in ways few people do. There are no filters, and as a consequence we’re not distanced from anything he writes.”