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Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

Tomato Red (original 1998; edition 1998)

by Daniel Woodrell

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Title:Tomato Red
Authors:Daniel Woodrell
Info:Henry Holt and Co. (1998), Edition: 1st, Hardcover, 240 pages
Collections:Your library

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Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell (1998)

  1. 10
    The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock (RidgewayGirl)
    RidgewayGirl: Another Noirish crime novel set in Appalachia.

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Sammy Barlach is looking for a cross to hang himself on and he finds just the right one when he meets Tomato Red.

Tomato Red, aka Jamalee, and her brother Jason live hanging by their fingernails in a backwater town in the Ozarks. When they meet Sammy they feel like they’ve found the right fall guy/battering ram to help them get the hell out of there. Nothing is clear though as to how or from whom. Instead Woodrell paints a deeply layered picture of poverty, hopelessness and crystal clear knowledge of where those things will get them.

Sammy narrates the tale and his voice is cutting and incredibly descriptive in a jangly and unexpected way. I loved it. The writing is raw, imaginative and deft and reminded me of William Gay. I think they deal with similar themes. Gay is more gothic and Woodrell more noir, if that makes sense. This is not a book you can skim and you won’t want to despite the fairly bleak circumstances. The thing is, Sammy himself is not bleak. He takes life as he finds it and while not always doing the easy thing, he does what feels right to him and always pays the price without whining or recriminations.

Going in Sammy pretty much tells you that his tale won’t end well and there’s no reason to think he’s lying. The denouement is subtle, but treacherous and I had to go back to an earlier scene to make that final one line up because I had forgotten which thread bound them together. When it hits it's like a heavy blow that you knew would hit you eventually, but didn’t see coming. Very effective without being hyperbolic or graphic. Sad, too, but there is a slim cord of hope in the end, but I do wonder if it will hold. ( )
  Bookmarque | Oct 10, 2015 |
Once in a long while, a book comes along whose narrative voice is so compelling it grabs you from beginning to end. This was one of those books.

The four main characters occupy the lowest rung of the social totem pole in the Missouri Ozarks. The observations our narrator makes can sometimes be hilarious:

"The Merridew kids shared the coop with Rod's dog. It was a shaggy, lazy dog named Biscuit who had the personality of a defeated old alcoholic uncle, more or less. Biscuit mainly just laid there and thumped his tail pleasantly. Once in a while he goes to the screen door and stands there scanning the street like he's hopin' to see the mailman bringing his disability check, then moans in disappointment and flops back down."

But make no mistake. This book is no comedy. It hardly can be, when the people at the center are treated as society's throwaways, for whom there is no justice and it is dangerous to have dreams. Here's the lesson:

"You know, the regular well-to-do world should relax about us types. Us lower sorts. You can never mount a true war of us against the rich 'cause the rich can always hire us to kill each other. Which they and us have done plenty, and with brutal dumb glee. Just toss a five-dollar bill in the mud and sip wine and watch our bodies start flyin' about, crashing headfirst into blunt objects, and our teeth sprinkle from our mouths, and the blood gets flowing in such amusing ways. Now it's always just us against us--guess who loses?"

This book illuminated an American subculture very different from my own--one where the American dream has gone to die--and I think it will stay with me for a very long time. ( )
  kvrfan | Apr 25, 2015 |
If you are from "the wrong side of the tracks" can you ever realize your dream of becoming something more than poor white trash? Jamalee has dreams of rising above her social status. At nineteen, she lives with her younger, beautiful, gay brother; their prostitute mother lives next door. Sammy Barlach, a 24-year-old drifter looking for people to belong to comes into their lives and becomes part of the plan.

This is a melancholy story; it's hard to believe that life holds any major promise for Jamalee and her family. The writing is masterful; it really contributes to the mood of the story. And the ending felt like a punch in the stomach. ( )
  LynnB | Dec 24, 2014 |
When a teenage boy is described as "the prettiest boy in the Ozarks", you know bad things will happen. Sure enough, they do. The whole sad story is narrated by Sammy Barlach, a twenty-four year old drifter and ex con from Arkansas, now at loose ends in West Table, Missouri.

Sammy broke into a mansion one night and passed out after consuming too much vodka. Jamalee Merridew and her younger brother Jason found him when they broke into the same mansion. It seems Jamalee's job as a hair stylist gave her all kinds of information about what houses in town would be empty and when. Not having anywhere else to go, Sammy moved in with the pair. He was quickly smitten by their prostitute mother, who lived next door. What follows is the story of an inevitable tragedy and the immutable lesson that nobody cares, even when really bad things happen.

On the back of this edition, the publisher tells the reader, Tomato Red is a wild and exhilarating joyride of a novel...", one that is "... written at a fever pitch, with a bluesy beat and a poet's touch". "Exhilarating" seems to be completely incorrect. There is a despair in this novel that comes from the fact that nothing will ever change for the residents of all the West Tables. There is a permanent underclass that nobody wants to hear about or talk about.

Bleakness is my preferred tone in fiction, but there was a wrong note here that I just can't place. Perhaps the narration was too breezy for the tale it told. Perhaps it read too much like a story wanting to be a script. Two of Woodrell's novels have been turned into films: Woe to Live On was made into Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil, and Winter's Bone] should become a classic. However, when it comes to writing about the people no one wants to see or know, I'd recommend skipping Woodrell and reading instead Russell Banks, Pete Dexter or Denis Johnson.
  SassyLassy | Aug 21, 2014 |
Started well and sucked me in. Loved the characters and the story line, but was disappointed with the ending. Still, really enjoy the way Woodrell turns a phrase. Can't wait to read more by this author. Hopefully we haven't hear the last of Jamalee. ( )
  gkyoungen | Mar 24, 2014 |
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Anybody possessing analytical knowledge recognizes the fact that the world is full of actions performed by people exclusively to their detriment and without perceptible advantage, although their eyes were open.

It's not all peaches and cream.
But I haven't learned that yet.

First words
You're no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it's been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you're fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin' down with a miserable bluesy beat and there's two girls millin' about that probably can be had but they seem to like certain things and crank is one of those certain things, and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines, and the next time you notice the time it's three or four Sunday mornin' and you ain't slept since Thursday night and one of the girl voices, the one you want most and ain't had yet though her teeth are the size of shoe-peg corn and look like maybe they'd taste sort of sour, suggests something to do, 'cause with crank you want something, anything, to do, and this cajoling voice suggests we all rob this certain house on this certain street in that rich area where folks can afford to wallow in their vices and likely have a bunch of recreational dope stashed around the mansion and goin' to waste since an article in The Scroll said the rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy vacation.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0452281946, Paperback)

The hero of Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red is the most endearingly out-of-control loser you're likely to meet. Sammy Barlach looks like a person "who should in any circumstances be considered a suspect"; clerks follow him through the supermarket when he shops, and the police pull him over simply from habit. But in spite of his looks, Sammy only wants to be loved, even if it's just by "the bunch that would have me"--and in the hardscrabble world of West Table, Missouri, that's a bunch you wouldn't necessarily want to meet. The novel begins with a heady Methedrine rush, as Sammy celebrates payday by letting himself be talked into robbing a nearby mansion. Even when his newfound friends disappear as he's breaking in, he persists: "You might think I should've quit on the burglary right there, but I just love people, I guess, and didn't." The break-in leads Sammy into an unlikely alliance with the Merridew family: Jamalee and Jason and their mother Bev, a prostitute in the town's ironically named Venus Holler. Flame-haired Jamalee dreams constantly of a different kind of life, and she plans on using Jason's extraordinary beauty as her ticket out of West Table. Jason, however, seems to be shaping up as what Sammy calls "country queer"--which, as Sammy observes, "ain't the easiest walk to take amongst your throng of fellow humankind."

Unfortunately for Jamalee, Woodrell's Ozarks is a place that rewards ambition with disaster. Here as in his five previous "country noir" novels, Woodrell writes with a keen understanding of class and a barely contained sense of rage. The residents of West Table's trailer parks and shotgun shacks share Sammy's sense of limited possibilities. "I ain't shit! I ain't shit! shouts your brain," Sammy thinks while wandering around the mansion, "and this place proves the point." Even when Jason sticks up for his own family, the way he does so is heartbreaking: "This expression of utter frankness takes over Jason's beautiful face, and he says, 'I don't think we're the lowest scum in town.' He didn't argue that we weren't scum, just disputed our position on the depth chart." With her mildewing etiquette guides and grandiose plans, Jamalee is the only character who doesn't share their sense of defeat, and she's the only one who, in the end, gets away--though she leaves behind her a trail of betrayal and heartache. By the time the novel's final tragedy rolls around, it seems both senseless and inevitable, as tragedies do in real life. Told in a voice that crackles with energy and wit, Tomato Red is sharp, funny, and more importantly, true. --Mary Park

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:29 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A group of petty crooks in the Ozarks organize a series of scams to get rich. One scheme is to have the hunk among them seduce, then blackmail rich women, another is to burglarize houses while the owners are away on holiday.

(summary from another edition)

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