The way The Ozarks in Missouri are depicted in Daniel Woodrell’s fiction, it seems like somewhere you’d want to escape from than move back to. Nevertheless, it must have some attractions as he, and his novelist wife Katie Estill, chose to move back to the West Plains from San Francisco.
The region in Central United States is both the setting and practically an extra character in his novels. But you wouldn’t exactly say he sees the Osarkers through rose-tinted spectacles. They are, for the most part, presented as belonging to a closed, insular community who “don’t overwhelm strangers with ready backslaps and quick invitations”.
It was Debra Granik’s faithful and faultless adaptation of the novel Winter’s Bone that led me Woodrell’s writing. The book is as good as, if not better than the movie, which, if you’ve seen the film, you will know is high praise indeed.
I was keen to read something else by him and discovered that the rest of his fiction is not so easy to find. Fortunately, publishers are showing signs that the reissuing of his earlier novels is necessary.
Winter’s Bone was published in 2006; Tomato Red pre-dates it by eight years. The story is neatly summarised by The Independent’s John Williams as “a tragic tale of blighted white-trash dreams”. It is not as forceful or controlled as Winter’s Bone but it shows a writer finding his voice and having plenty to say.
The narrator is Sammy Bachlach (pronounced ‘back-lack’) who is all too aware , as all the characters are, of the gulf between the well to do and the down at heel. Sammy’s encounters with the world of the rich make him feel “embarrassed for the poorly decorated life I was born to”.
When breaking into a big mansion he meets sister and brother Jamalee (19) and Jason Merridew (17). They initially pretend that they are the home’s residents but then it becomes clear that they have merely broken in before him. Sammy’s first impressions are described in this way: “The two of them made a sight. I hate to fall back on ‘weird’ to describe them, but ‘goofy’ is too weak and ‘strange’ sounds too sensible”.
Jamalee’s hopes of escape are tied with her drop dead gorgeous brother, an apprentice hairdresser. She believes she can use his good looks to elicit money from the female clients who are besotted by him. The big drawback to this plan is that he is gay! Other occurrences conspire to make her cunning plan go pear-shaped.
Disillusioned, she is forced to contemplate the: “big rotten gap between who I am, and who I want to be, [and that it] never does quit hurtin’ to stare across”.
Sammy has designs on her and also on her mother Bev, a large-hearted and big-busted prostitute. Bev is no doormat and passes on words of wisdom based on her experience “The sun gives life but you’d be an ash flake if you got close to it, you got to swallow water to live but sometimes it kills you, Uncle Sam don’t truly count you as any relation, and God has gone blank on your name and face”.
Woodrell depicts the harsh male world very well but , as with Winter’s Bone, it is the female characters who are the strongest and most interesting. Although Sammy is the protagonist, the book’s title is a reference to the distinctive hair color of Jamalee.
Sammy is not the brightest spark, but his point of view sums up the tensions and inequality that fuels a rage that ultimately explodes. This is Woodrell’s fine description of Sammy’s state of mind:
“I imagine all of us who are like me grow up with our own ticking bombs planted inside us. You know, bombs of anger, fear, resentment and plain ol’ not liking yourself to a healthy depth. Some of us carry the complete bunch. Sometimes the ticking from that bunch of bombs is so loud you can’t hear another word”.
The plot of Tomato Red is contrived and wayward with an ending that borders on melodrama. But the novel shows that Woodrell is a writer who can create a vivid and witty portrait of people you wouldn’t necessarily want to meet and places you wouldn’t much want to go to.
“Founding father rockabillly” is Sammy’s (and presumably Woodrell’s favourite music). The following could be the Tomato Red soundtrack based on artists, and sometimes tracks, mentioned in the novel:
Magic Slim – Born Under A Bad Sign
Sleepy LaBeef – I’m Too Broke
Champion Jack Dupree – Big Time Mama
Jerry Lee Lewis – Mean Woman Blues
Dale Hawkins – My Babe
Charlie Feathers – That Certain Female
Groovy Joe Poovey – Careful Baby
Link Wray- Rumble
Rudy ‘Tutti’ Grayzell – Let’s Get Wild
Wanda Jackson – Let’s Have A Party
Billy Lee Riley – Rock With Me Baby
Ronnie Hawkins – Who Do You Love?
Carl Perkins – I’m Sorry, I’m Not Sorry
Elvis Presley – I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone