Back Bay Books, 224 pages, paperback, $14.99
Whenever I read a very popular contemporary author, I approach his or her work with the same critical eye I use for newbie and struggling indie authors, but with every intention on shedding light on each shortcoming. Why? Because writers who are selling a ton of books don’t need help or mercy from reviewers. In the case of Daniel Woodrell, there’s nothing to condemn, no negative critical assessment that could be made to place him in the group of well-liked authors whose undeserved popularity comes from buzz and not from their talent. Woodrell is a celebrated author simply because he’s a hell of a writer.
Sammy Barlach is a quintessential loser, an ex-con living in the Ozarks, looking to get high, barely keeping a job, and committing crimes on a regular basis. While breaking into a mansion, Sammy’s high comes crashing down and he falls asleep. He wakes up to Jamalee Merridew and her brother Jason. The siblings have Sammy tied down and make him believe many things before they all have to leave the opulent house in a mad dash. Jamalee, who has tomato red hair and ambitious dreams of a future spent in high society, sees Jason, a gorgeous man fighting a constant battle with his homosexuality, as her ticket out of Venus Holler, and Sammy as the muscle they need to complete the project. The trio ends up living together and learning from one another as Jamalee struggles to accept the impossibility of her vision and Jason battles his nature while trying to seduce women for money in order to make his sister happy.
Woodrell’s work has turned the Ozarks into a dark place full of grit and pain so pure it somehow becomes beautiful, and Tomato Red is no different. In this narrative, dark humor and turns of phrase that are like ballerinas wearing overalls and filthy boots once again make broken dreams, violence, alcohol, sex, frustration, and loneliness seem like unusual gems that only a lucky few get to enjoy. That an author can make unpleasant things so pleasant to read about is something no fan of fiction should miss.
Besides great prose, Tomato Red packs complex characters and top-notch dialogue that keeps the action flowing. Also, while this country noir contains plenty of the rage and hurting that Woodrell has made his calling card, it offers a unique take on the geographically-challenged dilemma of a young man who’s landlocked in a place where being homosexual is worse than having cancer, and an ending that sticks with readers for a while after the last page has been turned.
Every time Woodrell writes about defeat, readers win. His fictionalized versions of painful truths are as hard as the real thing, but they’re sharper, funnier, and offer the opportunity to hold the good and the awful in your hands and only get your mind grimy.
Gabino Iglesias is writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.