Thursday, April 8, 2010

Quick Review: Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

Due to an unusual amount of time spent sitting in hospital rooms recently I've been getting a lot of reading done.  Thankfully the St. Paul library is only blocks away from the where I've been spending the majority of my time so I've been burning through a few books per week.  Here is the first of, hopefully, a few reviews.

Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

Tomato RedThis is the third book I've read by Woodrell and he has quickly become one of my favorite writers.  I've heard various terms to describe his style but the one I think I like the best is "country noir".  He comes across as a mix between William Faulkner and Elmore Leonard which is nowhere near as odd as it might seem.  His writing is amazingly atmospheric and his dialogue is among the best in fiction today.  Here is the first sentence of the book to give you an idea of what the style is like:

"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 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."

Tomato Red is one of Woodrell's earlier books but the one I read most recently.  It tells the story of Sammy Barlach, a young man in Missouri who meets up with a brother and sister while in the process of robbing a mansion.  The three find a certain affinity for a each other and become accomplices in a plot of the sister's to escape their desolate lifestyle. Nothing goes the way it was planned of course, the story has all the typical noir twists and turns which in the end are entirely satisfying but plot is never what makes Woodrell special.  What sets Woodrell apart from just about any other author is the setting and characters.  I've never read stories with casts of characters like you find in his books.  The main character here is a crank user and alcoholic who is prone to violence and the rest of the cast is made up of a "country queer", a prostitute and a pill popping teen-ager.  There is absolutely no judgement from the author, Woodrell doesn't seem to look down on his (very) lower-class cast, instead he brings to their lives an almost epic arc.  For them, to escape the lives they were born into is nearly impossible and they know it and will do almost anything to make it happen.  They aren't "anti-heroes" either the characters are easy to empathize with even if their life is as far removed from my own as is possible while living in the same country.

I really can't recommend Woodrell highly enough.  Tomato Red is fantastic as are the other two books I've read by him "Give Us a Kiss" and "The Death of Sweet Mister".  The reason I started writing this blog was to, hopefully, make myself start thinking more about why I enjoy the art that I do and to hopefully share some of those things with others so give him a try if you like this sort of thing he is the best thing going in noir fiction today.

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