“I had been born shoved to the margins of the world, sure, but I had volunteered for the pits.”
Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red is lighthearted and wickedly funny - until it abruptly isn't, and you are in vain trying to recover from the unexpected whiplash from the change in direction and tone, and trying to figure out when exactly this black comedy became tragedy - and has it been tragedy all along but you just haven't noticed in time??? - and rereading the last few pages trying to figure out when and how exactly it changed course to bleak desperation, and all of this is causing you a headache like you haven't had in ages, and a bit of the hollow feeling somewhere deep in the belly. At least that's my experience with Tomato Red - a book I was considering setting aside somewhere in the first third of it or so, having never been a particular fan of this particular brand of hopeless bleak humor. But something in it made me keep going, and I have no regrets.
The only Woodrell I've read until now was Winter's Bone, the bleak and chilling story of Ozarks where meth is the king and overwhelming poverty is reality. Well, the setting here is similar in feel and tone, and pervasive hopelessness is another common thread. But in Winter's Bone we had a real protagonist - tough-as-nails Ree Dolly who was a ray of hope in the oppressive bleakness. Tomato Red instead gives up Sammy Barlach, a pathetic young kid "who should in any circumstances be considered a suspect", with drug addiction, no prospects, and the overwhelming desire to belong, to be accepted, to be loved. Sammy does find a ragtag bunch from the wrong side of the tracks that seems to accept him with no questions asked - by their own sad admission, maybe not even the lowest scum in town: an aging prostitute Bev Merrihew and her children Jason (a strikingly beautiful young boy struggling with his homosexuality) and Jamalee, a girl with tomato-red hair, a girl whose greatest ambition is to get out of the squalor of her hometown.
"This expression of utter frankness takes over Jason's beautiful face, and he says, 'I don't think we're the lowest scum in town.' He didn't argue that we weren't scum, just disputed our position on the depth chart."
It's Jamalee, a little flame with her tomato-red hair - or maybe hair the color of blood? - who is not content with being the (almost) lowest scum in town. And it's Jamalee who (as you can expect from the beginning of this book) ends up being a hurricane that wrecks up the status quo - but, like a hurricane, leaves destruction and a world of hurt in her path. And it's Jamalee who's too easy to blame for the stupid, pointless tragedy that happens in this book - until you stop to think of the real cause of everything, the crushing oppressive poverty aided by addiction and small-town isolated-community mentality. And, just like in Winter's Bone, the real character of this story is the setting itself, the Ozarks, the place that to my privileged middle-class educated self seems almost unreal and yet is the reality for so many people, the place that is not afraid to bite if you happen to cross it and it's code of conduct. And that is the most sobering thing in this book for me, really.
Perhaps it's exactly the juxtaposition of humorous witty voice of Sammy-the-village-idiot and the crushingly cruel hopelessness of reality that make this book what it is and make my brain spin over it. I'm not sure, but I know I'm not likely to forget this story any time soon.
4 stars and a lasting shaken-up feeling.