Tomato Red, by Daniel Woodrell: A Review
I felt that way about Carol Shields in university after reading The Stone Diaries and declaring hatred for it, and then reading it again and buying every one of her books at once. I still enjoy her writing. I cried when she passed. And I’ve felt that deep appreciation for other writers, too, like Sarah Selecky. This isn’t just about great stories: these people produce writing that speaks to my soul for whatever reason.
I can’t say any one of those other loves is being pushed aside, because that would hurt my heart. But I feel like telling you that Daniel Woodrell‘s got the conch now, and there’s no one else I want to speak. I’d hate to read that he’s like another writer, wouldn’t accept it, but it’s okay if some other author is compared to him.
I started going with Woodrell when he first got up to speak at Picton’s IFOA event last year. I’d never seen the man before in my life, or heard of him, but his books kept beckoning me over to the table, giving me the side eye, enticing me to caress their covers and nuzzle their pages. I did go over and we made love a bit, but I was cheap and didn’t pay. I needed proof of commitment. And when Woodrell opened his mouth and read, well, I was done like dinner. Head over heels. I still didn’t buy his books, though, not one, and that’s because money tends to be boss around here and I was short. To this day I kick myself for not getting a book signed. Instead I shot him meaningful looks he likely didn’t notice and felt badly that few lined up to see him. We were all dumb. But Hachette kindly sent me a copy of The Outlaw Album, and if you read my review, you’ll know what I thought. (Next up, Winter’s Bone.)
Impossibly, Tomato Red is even better. Of the novel, which was written in 1998 and the winner of the ’99 PEN USA award for fiction, Woodrell says, “It got some nice reviews but actually got far more nasty reviews than all of my other books combined. And most of them were from the South, which I couldn’t figure out. I thought, Is it the gay kid or what? I don’t know what it was.”
I figure those people wouldn’t know good writing if it sidled up to them and whispered sweetly in their ear, and everyone knows what flirting is.
Sammy Barlach hails from low places. He’s been dealt a poor hand in life, and he figures there isn’t any way out worth pursuing; he kind of accepts his lot and keeps on living it, seemingly helpless when it comes to doing wrong. When we meet him he’s high on crank and performing the most hilarious break-in you’ll ever read.
I slithered inside, uncut, and tumbled among the riches. … I’d judged I had further to fall, but huh-uh, and the pain jangle spanned from my elbows and knees to my shoulders and toes. I squealed and rolled and chop-blocked a high-back chair in the dark there and sent it tumbling.
You might think I should’ve quit on the burglary right then, but I just love people, I guess, and didn’t. …
When I wobbled inside that lit-up room the wind jumped from my chest. I gasped, groaned, mewed. My legs folded beneath me and I fell face first to a soft carpet that smelled sweeter than my ex-wife’s hair and brought to mind sheep in a flowery meadow high in the Alps or Japan or Vermont or some similar postcard spot from out there in the world where the dear goods I’ll never own are made.
A small-time criminal and drifter who can’t sleep unless he knows there’s food nearby, desperate to belong, Sammy finally finds a bunch that’ll have him (rather, the bunch finds him, having broken into the same house), down in Venus Holler. The houses here are shacks, with “bail bondsmen’s phone numbers taped on every refrigerator door.” Jamalee and her pretty brother Jason, and their mother Bev, a woman known particularly by all the men in town, adopt Sammy as one might take in a stray dog. He gets food and drink and to lie in their beds. In fact, Biscuit the dog does feature often in Sammy’s narration, and one can’t help but feel there’s an unspoken bond between the two, a comparison that’s left for us to make.
Jamalee has high aspirations. Unlike Sammy, who’s possessed only by the simple need to be loved, to be someone’s hero, Jam sees the legacy her mother leaves her, does not accept her lot, and wants most of all to escape the low life and start fresh, a proper woman. You want to admire her spunk, this tiny woman with that tomato red hair and gigantic dream. But her desire is her real motive for welcoming Sammy: he’s a means to her end, and part of that plan ironically doesn’t ascend higher than the life she lives now. Learning the hard way, she finds that people judge you by who you appear to be and are bound and determined to keep you there. All Jam knows is one side of the coin, and things take a turn for the worse. When Jason, the other means to her end, turns up dead, declared drowned, though they know better, and they’re bribed by the law to keep their mouths shut, Jamalee takes matters into her own hands, which leads to an inevitable ending that’s difficult to bear. The closing sentences, they’ll do you in.
It’s hard to believe Tomato Red is such a slim novel. While the prose is admirably sparse, there’s much that can be unpacked. This book has it all: distinct, well-developed characters, concrete setting, clear plot, superb dialogue, but also an offbeat commentary on class struggle and human need and choice and how our actions define us and imprison us and free us—all this masterfully tied together like it was preordained. It’s like reading a perfect short story, if you know what I mean; it carries that punch, the tautness, a kind of impressionistic feel that invites you to read between the lines.
The best books are the ones I find hardest to review, yet I feel desperate to do a good job: as much as Sammy wishes to belong, I want Woodrell to think I get him. At least, I hope I do. It’s hard to pull up that feeling and lay it out on screen. I’ve read him tell that there are many people who say they don’t see any of the humour in his books, but I laugh aloud and roll around in delight like a dog in fish guts. However, I don’t know anything about this “expressionism” Donald Harington says describes his writing. I have no clue what that means, or if it’s the same as the Wikipedia definition. Maybe I have to go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to know.
Of expressionism, Wiki says: “Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality.” First of all, is there any other way than to present the world solely from a subjective perspective? Could be I’m ignorant about these things, but I don’t really believe in the possibility of being truly objective. But maybe I don’t understand. I also didn’t think the perspective was distorted radically, though Woodrell has a way of saying things different from everyone else, and I don’t just mean the way he composes his sentences, the similes he uses, or the lower perspectives he chooses. And it’s through the emotional experiences of his characters and the way they express themselves that we see the reality of things; this is what good writing is. So I don’t know if I get Harington’s meaning, but I still feel I understand Woodrell’s writing—at the very least I deeply appreciate it—if not exactly what he may be trying to achieve artistically or purposefully.
All I know for sure is there is no one on this planet who can put words together like Daniel Woodrell. I don’t just mean he tells a great story, either. It’s the way he tells it. People say nothing is new under the sun, that stories now are simply variations on a theme. Maybe so. But Woodrell strays from the pack and sets himself apart: he tells the lesser-known stories, and through voices that rarely get heard. The way he describes things, so differently from the way others say them, it makes your brain explode. He 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. They say writing is a lonely craft. I disagree, for several reasons, but in this case, when you’re Woodrell, you engage, with your characters but also your readers. Not in a bad or invasive way, Woodrell’s originality is evident—it’s not just Sammy’s unique narrative voice that gets through to us, though his is a compelling, observant, poetic, endearing voice even while it lacks refinement and grammatical know-how (which by the way is one of the best things about it. His vocabulary and the way he uses it is pure gold). Much is made, still, of Holden Caulfield’s voice, say, and I love Salinger, but Caulfield’s got nothing on Sammy. I could pick every sentence of this book out to prove it.
And that’s the thing: I can’t pick which sentences in particular to quote for you. This whole book is one perfect example of mighty fine writing. It’s best if you just read it to know what I’m talking about.