How do some writers create compelling, even heroic, main characters that you wouldn’t want to spend ten minutes with in real life? It’s a problem for some readers, but I admire the ability, and find that skill translates into forceful storylines.
Tomato Red is the story of four such characters. Sammy Barlach tells the tale in an uncompromising voice; he does not hide anything from his audience, including his understanding that his whole life he’s been headed for prison or an early grave. We first meet Sammy when he’s under the influence of crank and breaking into a McMansion to impress a girl. But the high runs out and he wakes to find himself in the company of two seemingly-sophisticated young people who want Sammy to help them with a project.
Turns out Sammy has come into the orbit of Jamalee and Jason Merridew, two of the inhabitants of the lowest life across-the-track neighborhood in West Table, Missouri. West Table’s chief employer is a dog food factory, and Sammy can’t even keep a job there; Jamalee and Jason have bigger plans to escape West Table and go somewhere where people don’t treat them like the garbage on the bottom of their shoes. That’s where Sammy comes in.
But there’s trouble with their plan, the kind that can’t be overcome no way nohow. It seems their only choice is to put themselves into their own places – Jason at the local hair salon, Jamalee waiting tables at the country club, and Sammy doing whatever is left when the dog food factory doesn’t work out. Even those efforts go awry, and the trio embarks on a cycle of revenge and retribution that destroys their plans once and for all.
The fourth person in the story is Bev Merridew, Jamalee and Jason’s mother. She’s the kind of woman who learned long ago that for a pretty girl from across the tracks the best solution to life’s steamroller is to lay down. So she lays down, either with a joint or with a guy who can put some money in her pocket, and lets the rest wash over her. She even smokes, drinks, and sleeps with Sammy, which throws another sour note into his relationship with Jamalee. When trouble hits too close to home, though, for once she decides to take action but finds what few assets she has are worth nothing to the important people of the town.
Woodrell’s characters are the very best thing about this book. Sammy speaks in the cadence and language of a mostly unlettered culture that hasn’t yet succumbed to the uniformity of TV-speak. Like the forebears who settled in the isolated Ozarks, he has a fierce independence, a fierce loyalty to the people he adopts as his, a fierce temper when crossed. Jamalee barely contains her rage, knowing deep down that she doesn’t have the wherewithal to leave West Table. Jason is learning about his sexuality, and it doesn’t look good for him among these rural alpha males. Bev is earthy, practical, willing, which makes her a favorite among those same men.
I don’t know what it is about this setting, or the people who inhabit it, but it seems that I keep coming back to it, and with Tomato Red, I know I’m in good hands. The author of the terrific Winter’s Bone (also made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Ree), Woodrell’s writing is a reminder that an air of fatalism and a talent for stark storytelling seems to characterize the people of the Ozarks; maybe that’s what brings me back.
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