Wednesday, February 24, 1999

Missouri loves company

Daniel Woodress spins a neo-noir yarn

Posted By on Wed, Feb 24, 1999 at 12:00 AM

You know, not every poor, white, trailer-dwelling American aspires to appear on TV with Jerry Springer. But otherizing what yuppified-by-cathode ray tube-Americans call white trash certainly occurs under Mr. Springer’s supervision. TV can’t outline or explore, let alone temporarily erase, the American class DMZ between the preapproved haves and the paycheck-to-paycheck millions who splurge on cut-rate meat, box wine and Basic cigarettes by the carton. Novelist Daniel Woodrell can, though, and does, with remarkable wit, vigor and beauty – even in the face of utter human ugliness – in his sixth and latest novel, Tomato Red. It’s a novel that forces you to remember that at the heart of it all is the need to belong.

On the surface, it’s the story of Sammy Barlach – a man clever enough to concoct believable stories about the gaps in his employment record caused by minor stints in the joint – and his chosen-by-coincidence family. Woodrell opens the book with Barlach (pronounced with "lack" at the tail) laying down the before-you-judge-me gauntlet: A few hours after his first Friday at the West Table, Mo., dog food factory, Barlach’s settled into a night of booze and crank with some newfound "folk" from the nearby trailer court.

Sure enough, he and his new comrades soon find themselves attempting to break into the home of a wealthy townsperson who’s vacationing in Europe. More accurately, Sammy’s trying unsuccessfully to bust into the house by whipping firewood at a large patio door, lost in a sweaty, futile, early-morning, speed-jacked haze. He eventually succeeds – and is deserted by his compatriots – but falls asleep in the house’s lush comfort before he’s able to scoot with any loot. He awakens to find preternaturally beautiful Jason ("Hoodoo sculptors and horny witches knitted that boy…") and his sister Jamalee ("First off, her hair was red, a shade of red that would be natural on something in a garden but not on a person’s head ...") – the Merridews, fellow burglars – posing briefly as the home’s owners, inviting him into their make-believe world.

Jason and Jamalee have pill-encouraged, desperate dreams running around inside their heads that they’ll one day leave Venus Holler – the seedy area of shacks and near-shacks on the cluttered side of the tracks – and con their way into high society someplace over the Ozarks, with Jason’s good looks making the ladies swoon and Jamalee’s cunning guiding the way toward the ripest sucker.

Unfortunately, Jason is undeniably gay and Jamalee won’t admit that her would-be Don Juan sibling would just be miserable in her quixotic dreamworld – let alone that he’s miserable in West Table already. The trio is grounded in a warm, unapologetic reality by Jason and Jam’s mother-next-door neighbor, Bev Merridew, who turns tricks out of her Venus Holler house with West Table’s prominent civic authorities.

From the wild narrative dip in the swimming hole that is the novel’s inviting opening pages, Woodrell sets a brisk clip that flirts with murder mystery, sweetly tainted romance, Southern gothic old-weird America and a community of folks bound together mostly by geography and circumstance. One would have to page through Bukowski’s skid row scrapbook to find its equal. Better still, he paints the scenery in its own terms and colors: "Venus Holler as a name was one of those cruel country jokes that sticks. It was a holler of small, square homes that leaned sideways a bit like a bunch of drunks who can’t quite hear each other."

This is a novel that has no doubt already caused many reviewers to say things such as "Daniel Woodrell is an Ozark Raymond Chandler" and "Pour yourself a jelly jar of moonshine and settle into this tale of underbelly survival." Both easy statements contain an element of truth, too. Woodrell, an Ozarker by birth, creates a narrator who both embodies and channels the very sprit of his rural, poor surroundings in much the same way Chandler’s anti-heroes did in their native L.A. And Woodrell lets Barlach tell the story – in turns funny, poignant, deeply affecting, untamed and wild, wild, wild.

Tomato Red takes its August afternoon-sweet, humid time morphing briefly into a noirish whodunit before the narrative tracks get pulled up and the story and its inhabitants screech to a stop in the dirt. The reader is left in the dust just outside Bev Merridew’s place, with the screen door slapping against the house and the mud gathered from the story’s trail built up on your boots.

You will come to know Sammy Barlach, Jason, Jamalee and Bev Merridew slowly, mostly by realizing that – geography notwithstanding and class torn away – when they are stripped to their psychic bone, they are you and yours. Woodrell uses the other side of the tracks merely to keep all the pain of trusting and belonging, only to be ultimately betrayed, at a distance. In the end, as Sammy’s invitation to his tale goes, "You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen."

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