Hero Takes a Fall

Well, there’s a thunderstorm brewing outside and it’s dark as night out there. I am drinking a protein shake (trying to get back on the fat-loss regimen again; I kind of fell off somehow, and now have less than eight weeks to get down to 200 pounds before Labor Day) and listening to the thunder rumbling out there and watching the trees and crepe myrtles dancing in the wind. I am fluffing a load of laundry in the dryer, need to unload the dishwasher, and straighten up some odds and ends here in the kitchen. I’d like to get to work on my short stories in a moment, but I also just finished reading Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red and it was pretty amazing, I have to say.

It’s quite extraordinary, actually.

I knew it would be; many writers I admire and like love Daniel Woodrell’s work, so I knew I would like it, even if I was a bit hesitant about reading it. You see, being from the South–and the rural South, at that–I am always a bit reluctant to read books about the rural South. I know there are people who absolutely adore Eudora Welty, but I tried to read her Losing Battles and found the entire thing distasteful and condescending. My parents are from deeply rural Alabama, a part of the state that is so backward and remote that my grandmother didn’t get indoor plumbing until 1968 and I don’t think she had electricity when I was born; she was unable to get a phone until 1983. I spent every summer of my childhood in that part of the state; so I have lots of memories.

And the deeply rural South I knew? Nothing like that abysmal book. Nothing.

Faulkner, on the other hand–his rural South I could relate to, recognize and believe. Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series is also spot on, to name another. As I said, I know this world, I know its mindset, I know its people, and I know how they think–so the recent surge in think-pieces in major city newspapers about ‘how to reach blue collar voters’ and so forth–always miss key components; these are pieces by people who don’t know the people they are writing about. I am hesitant to read books like Hillbilly Elegy or Deerhunting for Jesus. 

But that–and how the left needs to think about rural voters–is a topic for another time.

Back to Tomato Red.

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 can probably be had but they seem to like certain things and crank is one of those certain things, 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 odo, 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 Stroll said the rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy vacation.

Wow, how’s that for an opening paragraph?

The rest of the book keeps up that insane pace; that mesmerizing voice; and eventually introduces Sammy Barlach (and the reader) to a white trash family called Merridew: Bev, the mom who lives in a shack in the holler where she entertains her paying male visitors, and her two teenaged kids, Jamalee (she whose hair is that shade of tomato red the book takes it title from) and her brother, Jason: He’s the kind of fella that if he was to make it to the top based only on his looks you’d still have to say he deserved it. Hoodoo sculptors and horny witches knitted that boy, put his bone and sinew in the most fabulous order. Dark-haired, green-eyed, with face bones delicate and dramatic both. If your ex had his lips you’d still be married. His size was somewhat smallish, but he was otherwise for certain the most beautiful boy I ever had seen. I’m afraid “beautiful” is the only word I can make work here, and I’m not bent or nothin’, but beautiful is the truth.

Sammy is drawn into their tangled world, of beer and cigarettes and stray cats and mutt dogs; of whiskey and wine and violence, a world where the system doesn’t work because the system is for rich people only, to make them richer and make them feel safe about keeping what they have. Jason is gay; a hairdresser with big dreams of getting out of the holler; of helping Tamalee make her dreams come true in Palm Beach. But the world is ugly for the poor, and about to get a whole lot uglier–and there’s also no justice for the poor, either.

Brilliantly conceived and executed, I can’t wait to read more Daniel Woodrell.

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