Tomato Red ~ A Capsule Book Review

Tomato Red ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Daniel Woodrell (b. 1953) is one of the best and most innovative of current American writers. His 1998 novel, Tomato Red, is set in the fictional town of West Table, in the Missouri Ozarks, in a poor section of town known as Venus Holler. Jamalee Merridew is nineteen years old, with hair the color of tomatoes. She has a seventeen-year-old brother named Jason Merridew, “the prettiest boy in the Ozarks.” (He has green eyes and full, pouty lips.) “Grown-up women,” Jamalee says, “throw their underpants at Jason with their phone numbers written on them in the grocery store.” Jason is a hairdresser; the fact that he is gay does not deter his female admirers.

Bev Merridew is Jamalee and Jason’s mother. She is about forty years old, is a whore and apparently has always been a whore. She lives in a shack in Venus Holler, next door to the shack that Jamalee and Jason live in. She drinks and smokes cigarettes and entertains men. “If she had all the dicks sticking out of her that she’s had stuck in her,” Jamalee says, “she’d look like a porcupine.”

Enter one Sammy Barlach, a decidedly trashy drifter, twenty-four years old. (The novel is told in Sammy’s first-person voice.) One night when Sammy is doing a little house-breaking in the expensive part of West Table, he meets Jamalee and Jason in a mansion-like home. He believes they live there, but soon discovers they are also house-breakers like him. He latches on to them and later their mother, Bev, as his adopted family. He refers to them as “the bunch that would have me.”

Jamalee, Jason and their mother Bev are constantly reminded that they are “trash” and “rednecks” because of where they live, their low socio-economic status, their drinking and their general all-around “no-goodness.” Many people around town are openly hostile to them.

When Jason fails as a pay-for-his-services stud for the ladies (he just doesn’t have it in him), Jamalee goes for an interview at the country club for a job as hostess, during which she encounters the meanness of the country club set toward her “kind.” When she is bodily ejected, she and Jason and Sammy (they have been waiting outside in the car for her) are drawn into an ugly and insulting brawl with some of the country club people that results in fists being thrown.

In retaliation for their rejection and humiliation, Jamalee, Jason and Sammy make a middle-of-the-night raid on the country club and do some serious and costly damage to the golf course. Their mischief may give them some temporary satisfaction, but it ends up having serious consequences for them. In a battle between “white trash” and the “country club set,” guess who is always going to win?

Tomato Red is an almost perfect contemporary American novel, with fascinating and believable characters, killer dialogue, and an unhappy, but completely satisfying and pitch-perfect, ending. I’ve read it twice and I might read it again before the curtain falls. Another novel I love, also by Daniel Woodrell, is The Death of Sweet Mister. It’s another fascinating foray into the world of trashy rednecks and a perfect companion piece to Tomato Red.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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