Like my last post on Daniel Woodrell, I’m doubling up reviews. Also similar to the last post, again there is one novel that I’d recommend to anyone looking for fucking hoot and one that is devastating and dark as all hell. But this time out, I’d say that anyone and everyone should read Tomato Red, the more tragic and noirier (totally a word, don’t worry about it) of the two, because it is one of the absolute finest novels I’ve read in a long fucking time, a no fucking joke classic.
But let’s kick shit off with Give Us a Kiss, Woodrell’s most personal novel to date. It’s the story of crime novelist Doyle Redmond returning to the Ozarks to convince his brother Smoke to turn himself into the cops seeing how their parents are being harassed daily by the cops. When he finds his brother, instead of getting all bounty hunter on his Smoke’s ass, Doyle ends up involved in a scam.
Smoke, his girlfriend Big Annie (named not for her weight but for her massive breasts), and Big Annie’s gorgeous daughter Niagra (like the honeymoon destination but spelt wrong) take on Doyle as security for their harvesting of a fat weed crop. The Dollys (the Ozark family we meet later in Winter’s Bone) have been snooping around Smoke is worried they’re gonna rip them off. Turns out Smoke’s instincts were correct and Doyle ends up murdering one of the infamous clan. Now the foursome is really in the shit.
Woodrell is clearly having a blast telling this tale and it’s filled with funny descriptions and hilarious dialogue. A great part of the book’s appeal is just the sense of fun that permeates much of the book (Jesus, I just wrote permeate like some kind of learned reviewer fellow. I'm a douche). Hanging out drinking in the warm night air, golfing on a woodsy course where the holes are just stacks of cow pies, going down on a beautiful hillybilly babe – it’s all rendered with love and longing. Even in Woodrell’s darkest works, there’s always a bit of escapist, man-I-wish-I-was-a-dirt-poor-hillbilly fantasy going on. Yeah, life may be hard in the Ozarks but a lot of the time it looks like some good old fashioned fun.
But it’s not all fun and games, dear reader. Shit gets violent and exciting and revelations happen and all that good shit you expect from a crime novel goes down, to be sure. Like Winter’s Bone, it’s clear that shit is never going to get all tragic on your ass, and that’s just fine because you’re happy to go along for the fun, pot-clouded ride.
There’s a lot of fun to be had in Tomato Red as well, but when shit goes dark it makes your heart absolutely fucking break. It’s the story of Sammy Barlach, a drifter who stumbles West Table and also into a fucked up but extremely tight-knit family and becomes an honorary member. There’s the adorable Jamalee Merridew, a smart young gal with her eyes set on high society, her gay hairdresser brother Jason, the most beautiful boy in the Ozarks, and their mother Bev, the local whore.
Figuring Sammy for one of them “rough types,” Jamalee enlists Sammy as a bodyguard of sorts, protection for when she gets her blackmail business off the ground. Her plan is to have Jason fuck married rich women then extort them for money, eventually netting them enough cash to move to some fancy place like Florida or Hollywood. Naturally, things don’t go as planned and this sad little family gets broken up toot-fucking-sweet.
Family is a major theme in all of the Woodrells I’ve read so far, and in Tomato Red that shit really hits home. Sammy is just searching for some place to fit in and be loved and it looks like the Merridews are as good a bunch as he’s likely to ever find. As with The Death of Sweet Mister’s protagonist Shuggie, when it looks like he’s gonna lose his pathetic family, the evil in him is released. The good times and hope that Sammy experiences before it all goes to shit make it hurt twice as hard.
Tomato Red is a breeze to read but tough to take. There are scenes in here that no shit devastate so if you’re looking for something a little lighter, I’d read Give Us a Kiss first. That said, be sure to get around to Tomato Red eventually because if you don’t, you’re missing out on – yeah, I’ll just fucking say it already – a modern classic.