Ozark Mountain Daredevils
On the strength of three utterly original "cajun noirs" featuring Louisiana cop Rene Shade and the nefarious denizens of the bayou town of St. Bruno, Ozark-born and-bred Daniel Woodrell has achieved the lofty status of critic's darling, a well-kept secret perpetually on the verge of being discovered. But as one of Woodrell's characters would surely tell you, critical acclaim doesn't go a long way toward a down payment on a second hand double-wide. And a well-kept secret in the publishing world -- besides being an oxymoron -- is not likely to set the registers ringing. Happily, Woodrell no longer has to share in his characters' hardscrabble circumstances. His second novel, WOE TO LIVE ON, a Civil War coming-of-age story that memorably records the Kansas-Missouri border skirmishes between secessionist bushwhackers and Union Jayhawkers, has been acquired by filmmaker Ang Lee and is currently in production under the title "Ride with the Devil."
The book that finally made a lasting impression upon the lay reader (an impression not unlike a blunt instrument-shaped concavity smack-dab in the middle of the forehead) is Woodrell's 1996 "country noir" GIVE US A KISS. Driven by Woodrell's taut plotting and extraordinary ear for language, this Jim Thompsonesque romp is the story of a prodigal son who returns to the bosom of his family in a time of need -- in this case, his own. Doyle Redmond is a struggling mystery writer and burned-out academic whose marriage and career are both on the skids. At the high-lonesome summons of kith and kin, Doyle steals his wife's Volvo and heads for the hills and hollers of his misspent youth, ostensibly to help his mountain man brother, Smoke, beat a trumped-up robbery charge in Kansas City. Once back in his native element, Doyle quickly succumbs to the simple pleasures of life -- booze, steamy sex with a fetching "hillbillyette," and a get-rich-quick scheme involving a bumper crop of homegrown marijuana that reignites the age-old feud between the Redmond and Dolly clans.
Woodrell's characters know that the hand they've been dealt is lousy and that the deck is stacked against them in the first place -- but they ante up anyway, just for the chance to get in the game. Who's to say that a timely right poker-faced bluff won't intimidate some fool with a better hand into folding? Though Doyle portrays himself as one of life's losers, genetically programmed to follow in the feckless footsteps of his hillbilly forebears, there is never any doubt that he will find a way -- no matter how violently Neanderthal -- to make good. In contrast, Sammy Barlach, the narrator of Woodrell's new novel, TOMATO RED, is pathetically hopeful, a (pit-bull) puppy who dares to imagine that he may yet escape the life sentence at hard labor and meaningless drudgery ordained by the accident of his birth. Given Woodrell's sardonic sense of humor, it isn't hard to deduce that Sammy is damned from the git-go, but the particulars of his inexorable slide into perdition make for an exhilarating, nonstop read.
Shortly after delivering the breathless, crank-induced soliloquy that opens the book, 24-year-old Sammy, "a kickaround mutt from Blue Knee, Arkansas," with little more than a rap sheet, a battered Ford Pinto, and an eclectic collection of rockabilly cassettes to his name, is granted a tantalizing glimpse of the promised land when he breaks into a vacant mansion in West Table, Missouri, in search of high-class narcotics. He finds instead a "regular theme park of fancy fuckin' stuff I never had, never will, hadn't ever truly even seen in person." The casual opulence of the mansion reduces him to a quasi-religious state of awe and self-loathing -- "A quick inventory of only this one room...[m]ade me hate myself and all my type that came before me." Somehow Sammy manages to lose an entire day (and as result, his provisional job at the Happy Bark Dog Food factory) amid the splendor the burgled manse. When he comes to his senses, he finds himself duct-taped to a calfskin wingback chair, interrogated by a waifish debutante with tomato-red hair and her drop-dead gorgeous consort. He soon learns that the outlandish pair are Jason and Jamalee Merridew, a brother-and-sister tagteam of mischief-makers from the wrong side of the tracks.
Driven by a lifetime of resentment spent staring across "that big rotten gap between who I am, and who I want to be," Jamalee is determined to escape West Table along with her sexually ambiguous brother. All that's missing from her master plan (she naïvely expects to finance her escape by pimping her irresistible brother out to lusty local housewives) is a little hired muscle to see them through the occasional misunderstanding. Sammy, with his "born to lose and lose violently" air, would seem to be their man. Though it soon becomes disastrously clear that Jason isn't cut out to be a gigolo, Jamalee is not to be deterred. She swallows her pride and applies for a job as a waitress at the snooty West Table country club, only to be humiliated for the effort. Jamalee and Sammy devise a brilliantly warped revenge to return injury for insult, a nocturnal piece of mayhem involving a trio of pigs, a length of logging chain, and suitably soggy putting green. (I doubt I'll ever forget Sammy's Ozarkian folk wisdom on how to squelch a squealing porker.)
And then, unthinkably, the local powers-that-be brutally raise the stakes of the game, with devastating, soul-crushing consequences. It would be criminal to give away more of the story -- suffice it to say that Woodrell does not stint the reader on his trademark displays of sex, drugs, corruption, and violence.
Woodrell prefaces TOMATO RED with a telling quote by famed psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, a passage that succinctly describes the operating principle behind each of his novels: "Anybody possessing analytical knowledge recognizes the fact that the world is full of actions performed by people exclusively to their detriment and without perceptible advantage, although their eyes were open." We can only hope that Woodrell continues to open our eyes with his distinctive vision of America for many years to come.
You read Woodrell for his language. He's one of those storytellers you lean into, so mesmerized by his cadences that even when he's telling you ugly things you want to hear more.
Advertising its genre as 'country noir', Tomato Red> keeps up a creditable impersonation of a thriller....Woodrell's novels veer disconcertingly, clumsily, sometimes brilliantly, between burlesquing the genres they ostensibly inhabit and investing them with an unexpected authenticity. London Review of Books
. . .Counters its sad themes with storytelling that is vivid, funny and full of bad attitude. . . .Woodrell's storytelling is as melodic, jangly and energetic as a good banjo riff.
The New York Times Book Review
A shimmering novel, rich with insight, Tomato Red -- unsentimental yet full of sentiment --helps ease the ache of human yearning. -- The Washington Post Book World
Woodrell has no quit in him. The more he writes, the more you feel for the characters, the sense of place, and the extraordinary stories of hopes, dreams, and just plain living. The journey back to West Table, MO, introduces us to Jamalee, Jason, and Bev Merridew. Each one is quirky and damaged by life as Ozark white trash. Hopes for escape are pinned on Sammy Barlach, who has never had much more pinned on him than misdemeanors. Woodrell's language is a lyrical blend of comic wit and redneck twang. His vast life experience brings a fresh, poignant look at Appalachian people. Keep 'em coming! -- Shannon Williams Haddock, Bellsouth Corporate Library. & Business Research Center, Birmingham, Alabama
I was a kick-around mutt from Blue Knee, Arkansas ... on my own slow ramble throughout sincere poverty and various spellbinding mishaps, says Sammy Barlach, the narrator of Tomato Red. Central to this novel, the sixth from Missourian Daniel Woodrell, are Barlach's mishaps in Venus Holler, a skanky little Ozark hamlet that "had the shape of a collapsed big thing, something that had been running and running until it ran out of gas and flopped down exhausted exactly here ... Scrub timber and trash piles and vintage appliances spread down the slopes and all around the leaning houses to serve as a border between here and everything that wasn't here."
That particular gap -- between here and not-here -- is as central to Tomato Red as narrator Barlach is; it might be said, in fact, that they play the same role. Barlach, the sort of homemade-tattoo-and-gimme-cap loser you find in the trailer park lit of Harry Crews and Larry Brown, drifts into Venus Holler and into the lives of a trio of its denizens: Bev Merridew, a pillar of Venus Holler whoredom, "a Barbie who has gone to seed on roadhouse whiskey and pan-fried chicken"; her 19-year-old daughter, Jamalee (she of the tomato red hair), a 5-foot goth Lolita with big plans to make it past the outskirts of town; and her brother Jason, a young man far too beautiful ("hoodoo sculptors and horny witches knitted that boy," Barlach says) and far too gay to live long in Venus Holler. Jamalee sees Barlach as the muscle she and her brother need to bust out of town -- someone to "help ... keep the nightmare straight," as Jamaleee puts it. Barlach has been places, seen things; he knows the not-here. At the novel's start, he's got nothing but time on his hands. It's not long before that time is replaced by a corpse, a mess of hot trouble and a goodly bit of female flesh.
As with his last novel, Give Us a Kiss, Woodrell bills Tomato Red as "country noir" -- a self-created genre that might have emerged decades earlier if Raymond Chandler and Erskine Caldwell had ever sat down to write a book together. Like Chandler, Woodrell writes with an almost filmic sense of place. The terrain of Venus Holler (and its parent town, West Table) plays as large a role as any of Woodrell's characters, a vividly rendered townscape that -- despite a token cast of bourgeois badmen -- is the root of the story's villainy. In the end, however, you may have a stronger sense of that terrain than you do of any of Woodrell's characters. Barlach pours out sermons about the differences between rich and poor -- between the here and not here -- but the people Woodrell uses to illustrate those differences never develop into anything more complex or sympathetic than sketches.
"All fiction begins with genre," said John Gardner, "but good fiction transcends it." For crime fiction, this is heady stuff, written so sharply and stylishly that one can almost hear Woodrell howling with delight when he hits a stinger of a line (and there are many). What Tomato Red lacks, however, is the power to transcend the limits of its own genre -- the whiff of humanity that great fiction emits. --Salon Aug. 7, 1998
Latest in the genre christened 'country noir'. Terrific if you can take the change of pace.
. . .[T]he author seems to have pitched this, his sixth low-down and dirty novel, to the big screen: his no-account characters and their dumb-as-a-stump doings have that over-the-top quality that transfers neatly to the movies; and his downbeat ending, with its teenaged femme fatale, is pure Hollywood noir. None of which is to say that here is inferior Woodrell. His singular voice still captures the redneck poetry of everyday peckerwood speech, and his tough-guy posturings reveal themselves as empty gestures. Add to that a new sense of class conflict as it plays itself out in semi-rural Missouri. Woodrell's loser narrator, 24-year-old Sammy Barlach, comes from Blue Knee, Arkansas, 'an hour and a tall beer to the Delta side of Little Rock.' A self-described 'cranked-out dipshit,' Sammy can't hold a job or a woman and soon falls into the 'nutsy actin' of two other, less lumpy lumpen proles who were also 'born shoved to the margins of the world.' Nineteen-year-old Jamalee Merridew, with the tomato-red hair celebrated in the title, hopes to escape the grind of low living by exploiting the phenomenal beauty of her younger brother, Jason, a budding beautician whose uncertain sexuality renders his sister's blackmail scheme moot. The siblings' unmarried mother, Bev, 'a Barbie who has gone to seed on roadhouse whiskey and pan-fried chicken,' supports her clan on her back. Jamalee meanwhile studies etiquette and dreams of living high. When her plans take a downward turn, with brutal consequences, Sammy, himself, craving to be a herojust proves the truth of his down-home Hobbesianism: life is 'glum and grim and nasty.' Woodrell's sorry country folk 'live fast' and 'learn slow,' asJamalee puts it, and their tale provides lots of low comedy,and no small amount of pathos.
The Washington Post Book World
"A shimmering novel, rich with insight...a pleasure... Zooms on the rocket fuel of Woodrell's explosively original language."
"Dan Woodrell does for the Ozarks what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles."
Read an Excerpt
Theme Park of Fancy
You're no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen:
Friday is payday and it's been a gray day sogged by a
slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and
since you're fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at
the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow
but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main,
and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer,
then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps
comin' down with a miserable bluesy beat and there's two
girls millin' about that probably can be had but they seem
to like certain things and crank is one of those certain
things, and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven
handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines,
and the next time you notice the time it's three or four
Sunday mornin' and you ain't slept since Thursday night
and one of the girl voices, the one you want most and ain't
had yet though her teeth are the size of shoe-peg corn and
look like maybe they'd taste sort of sour, suggests something
to do, 'cause with crank you want something, anything,
to do, and this cajoling voice suggests we all rob this
certain house on this certain street in that rich area where
folks can afford to wallow in their vices and likely have a
bunch of recreational dope stashed around the mansion
and goin' to waste since an article in The Scroll said the
rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy
That's how it happens.
Can't none of this be new to you.
The gal with her mouth full of shoe-peg corn and the
bright idea in the first place drives over and lets me off at
the curb, and there's another burglar passed out in the
backseat who won't be of any help. She doses a kiss out to
me, a dry peck on the lips, and claims she'll keep her eyes
peeled and I should give the high sign once I've burgled
my way inside.
The rain has made the ground skittish, it just quakes
and slides away from my footsteps, and this fantastic mist
has risen up and thickened so that eyesight is temporarily
marked way down in value.
I stumbled into a couple of different hedgerows, one
about head high and one around the waist, before I fell
onto the walkway. The walkway was, I suppose, made of
laid brick, but the bricks were that type that's bigger than
house bricks, more the shape of bread loaves, which I
think classes them as cobblestones or something. So I
wobbled along this big brick walkway, on up the slope and
past a lamppost in the yard that made a hepatitis-yellow
glow, straight to the backside of the mansion.
Rick folk apparently love their spectacular views, pay
dear for them, I'm sure, so there was all this glass. The
door was glass and the entire rear wall practically was
glass. By sunlight I'd reckon you could see the total spread
of the town and long, long pony rides' worth of countryside
from any corner in there. All that window gave me
brief goofy thoughts of diamond-point glasscutters and
suction cups and the whole rigamarole of jewel-thief piss
elegance but, actually, with my head out to lunch as it was
I just grabbed a few logs from the firewood stack on the
patio there and flung them at that glass door.
I suppose I had a sad need to fit in socially with those
trailer-park bums, since I imagined they were the only
crowd that would have me, because when that first chunk
of wood merely bounced from the glass door and skidded
across the patio I became bulldog-determined to get the
job done for my new friends, and damn the effort or obvious
The logs hit with a bang. Two, three, four times I
chucked firewood at that glass and never heard anything
close to the sound of a shatter. I sidled up in the mist and
skimmed my fingers over the door and felt, I think, the
start of some tiny hairline fractures, but there were no big,
The glass of that door surely had some special qualities
that must've been expensive to come by, but worth it, I'd
have to say, judging from the wimpy way those logs merely
bounced and failed to bust me in there. But I kept
pitchin', and bangs kept bangin' out across that neighborhood
of mist, until my pitches became tired and wild and
I whipped a firewood chunk three or four yards off-line
and into a small square window to the flank of the door,
and that glass thankfully was of a typical lower order and
flew all to pieces.
The glass shatter seemed like a sincere burst of applause,
a sincere burst of applause that would come across
as alarming and requiring a look-see to any ears open
out there in the mist. I went motionless, tried to be a
shadow. Pretty quick I heard a derisive shout from shoe-peg
mouth, something that might've hurt my feelings to
hear clear, then tires squealed and carried my social circle
away, leaving me to do the mansion solo.
I stayed a still shadow for a bit, but my mind, such as it
was at the moment, was made up and determined: I
needed friends, and friendship is this slow awkward
process you've got to angle through, and I could yet maybe
find what we looked for, return to the trailer park on foot
as both a hero and the sudden life of the party.
When no alarm was raised, I came out of my shadow
imitation and went to the broken window. The mist felt
like a tongue I kept walking into, and my skin and clothes
seemed slobbered on. The world aped a harmless watchdog,
puttin' big licks all over my face.
The window set too high to spring through, and the
glass was not perfectly broken out. There were jaggedy
places with long points. I got up on tiptoes and reached
my arm through, extra careful, but couldn't reach a latch
or doorknob or anything worthwhile.
The batch of flung logs had scattered about and lay
underfoot, and the third or fourth time I stumbled on one
this thought jumped me. The thought called for a ladder
of firewood chunks, and I went to work building this
theory that had jumped me from below. That mist made
any effort seem sweaty and sweat made me feel employed
and that made me start expectin' a foreman to come
along and, because of the part in my hair or the attitude of
my slouch, fire my ass on a whim, as per usual. But the
ladder got built and came to reach the height it needed to.
I think I thought this ladder invention meant I was
Atop the ladder I wrapped my T-shirt around my fist
and punched the jagged parts loose until there was a clean
frame that could be wriggled through without gettin'
carved along the flanks.
I slithered inside, uncut, and tumbled among the
My distance perception had gone tilt in my head and
that floor reared up and swatted me awful quick. The floor
felt like a clean street, a street of that marble stuff, I
reckon, maybe Mexican tile, only it was in the kitchen area
and mighty stern to land on, especially with that tilt factor
in my head, as I barely raised my arms to brace before
skidding across it. I'd judged I had further to fall, but
huh-uh, and the pain jangle spanned from my elbows and
knees to my shoulders and toes. I squealed and rolled and
chop-blocked a highback chair in the dark there and sent
You might think I should've quit on the burglary right
then, but I just love people, I guess, and didn't.
I became a shadow again, splayed on that imported
floor, listening to the mansion. It was supposed to be
empty, but newspapers get so many things wrong. Best
not to trust them overmuch. The mansion had a slight
glow going on inside there, and I got it that they had left a
couple of lamps burning in a distant room. The lamps
were likely set on a timer and meant to warn away such as
I so such as this wouldn't happen.
These burglar lights helped my eyes to focus.
Standing again, finally, I slid my shirt on and rubbed
my sore spots, then let my feet aim me toward the glowing
room. The crank comedown was settin' in, I think, from
the way my feet got heavy and weaved and stomped. This
mansion smelled of big achievements and handbags from
Rome and unknown treats, which were better scents than
I was used to. The walls even seemed special, kind of, as
my fingertips skipped along them feeling how fine and
costly they felt. My mind, I'd say, stumbled along two
or three steps behind my body. More like a waiter than
When I wobbled inside that lit-up room the wind
jumped from my chest. I gasped, groaned, mewed. My
legs folded beneath me and I fell face first to a soft carpet
that smelled sweeter than my ex-wife's hair and brought
to mind sheep in a flowery meadow high in the Alps or
Japan or Vermont or some similar postcard spot from out
there in the world where the dear goods I'll never own
The sight and smell of all this shook me.
I know I trembled and breathed shallow.
The mansion was the way I'd always feared a mansion
would be, only more so. In my fear I'd never managed to
conjure the spectacular astounding details. A quick inventory
of only this one room made me hate myself. Made me
hate myself and all my type that came before me. This
mansion was sixteen levels higher than any place I'd ever
As I stared about--gawked, probably--I likely blushed
pink to go along with those trembles.
I'd say what such things as I saw in that room were, if I
knew the proper names of such things, though I'd bet
heavy I've never heard those names spoken. I'm sure such
things have personal names--those special moody lampshades
made of beadwork, and a chair and footstool put
together with, like, weaved leather hung on frames of
curled iron or polished rare bones, maybe, and end tables
that had designs stabbed into them and stuffed with gold
leaf or something precious, a small and swank desk over
by the far wall, and a bookshelf so old our Revolution
must've happened off to the sides of it, carved up with
fine points and nicely shined, with a display of tiny statues
and dolls arranged just so all across it.
Pretty soon I crawled away from the light, back to the
dark parts of the mansion. That sinking feeling set in.
Truly, I felt scared, embarrassed for the poorly decorated
life I was born to.
This mansion is not but about a rifle shot distant from
the trailer park, but it seemed like I'd undergone interplanetary
travel. I'd never collided with this world before.
I collected myself in the kitchen. Shuffled my parts
back together. My breaths deepened to normal. That
splendor had stunned me and then sickened me with a
mess of recognitions.
You see the insides of a classier world like that and it
sets your own to spinning off-balance, and a tireless gnawing
discontent gets to snacking on your guts and spirit.
This caliber of a place makes you want to discriminate
against yourself, basically, as it reveals you as such a loser.
A tiny mote of nothin' much just here to muss up the
planet these worthies lived so grandly on and wished they
could keep clean of you and yours.
I ain't shit! I ain't shit! shouts your brain, and this place
proves the point.
Oh, hell yes, this mansion was a regular theme park of
fancy fuckin' stuff I never had, never will, hadn't ever
truly even seen in person.
Naturally there's some urge to just start smashing
amuck in the mansion, whacking all those glamorous
baubles and doodads as if these objects had personally
tossed you a key ring and told you to fetch their car. That
urge is there, to see things shatter, dent, sag with ruin.
That urge is always there, usually in shadow though never
But I don't need to want that anymore, or at least
lately, so instead I decided to eat.
That mist had gotten bunchy and milled up against
the kitchen windows like a rubbernecking crowd peeking
in on a private moment. A few wisps shoved in through
the busted window and gave me the sense of long fingers
There was a button on the wall beside the stove, and I
punched it and got light. The light pushed the crowd
back, slapped away those pointing fingers. This kitchen
came near to the size of a decent trailer home. There were,
close as I could figure, two stoves or three, or just one
giant with a dozen burners. Cabinets ran to the ceiling,
made of some blond wood from Oriental lands, I'd guess,
and the ceiling was yea tall, so there was a cute li'l stepladder
on a runner that slid from cabinet to cabinet so you
could see into the upper shelves. A pretty dapper rendition
of woodwork, in my opinion. The fridge resembled a
bank vault, a big dull metal thing with heavy doors.
The funny thing about these swell folks is they don't
leave much food to scrounge. I did a run-through of the
fridge and found that all the familiar items were frozen. It
disappointed me that there were no exotic leftovers. In the
freezer part I turned up a booze bottle that belonged on
the pricey shelf at the Liquor Barn. The label on the bottle
resembled an eye-test chart, Russian or one of those
names, but after a few chugs I could testify it was vodka,
for certain, and a quality version of it too.
I began to thrash through the cabinets hunting for
peanut butter because I'd seen mayonnaise in the fridge,
and peanut butter and mayonnaise meant I could sleep. I
could let the crank go bye-bye and sleep. I can't sleep
without food nearby. I can't sleep anywhere until I know
I'll get to eat again if I need to. I don't have to eat, yet I
can't rest without bein' positive sure there's food at hand,
but these folks apparently didn't stoop to peanut butter
'cause there wasn't any. Peanut butter is the prescribed
hunger medicine for poor folks, and there's always a
scraping or so left in the bottom of the jar, somewhere way
back in the cupboard. I've been to bed hungry plenty and
my tummy whimpered and whimpered and those whimpers
are forever on tape in my head.
The vodka at least gave my gut growls instead of
Some cheese turned up in the fridge. It's a nice round
hunk, but it's not yellow. It's some nearly white kind that
smells too gourmet for me, but the hunk was silky smooth
and plump as a newborn's rump and I had the sensation
of sinkin' my teeth into a pampered baby's butt for a taste.
The flavor was odd but okay, and I knew then I
The vodka and me and the baby butt of cheese wandered
down a dim hall. When crank dies out, a big sudden
tired hits, and I could feel it windin' up to smite me. You
sleep where you land. I got to a room that echoed as I
walked and sounded big, until I bumped my shin on a
chair, then fell into it, and threw my head back and raised
my feet to the stool out front.
My collapse had been into a calfskin wingback chair,
and I just folded into it, tucked myself away secretly there
like a French tickler in a gentleman's leather wallet.
The dreams that made the scene inside my skull
weren't dreamy dreams, but rather more like long news
clips from kangaroo court sessions convened on me in a
gaudy plush holding cell, and the entire jury was made
up of loved ones I'd sorely disappointed since they were
buried and whiskery perverts who took a shine to me just
the way I was.
I slept for over a full day, as you know, but I won't say I