Tomato Red

Tomato Red

3.9 31
by Daniel Woodrell

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In small Ozark towns like West Table, Missouri, what you are is where you're born. And if you're born in the Venus Holler section of town, what you are isn't much.

For Bev Merridew, who can turn a trick as easily as she can roll a joint, life in Venus Holler is tolerable. For her nineteen-year-old daughter, Jamalee, a life guaranteed to be the replica of her mother

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In small Ozark towns like West Table, Missouri, what you are is where you're born. And if you're born in the Venus Holler section of town, what you are isn't much.

For Bev Merridew, who can turn a trick as easily as she can roll a joint, life in Venus Holler is tolerable. For her nineteen-year-old daughter, Jamalee, a life guaranteed to be the replica of her mother's isn't good enough. With her tomato-red hair and her barely contained rage, she has plans, and they don't include Venus Holler. What they do includeÄindeed, depend onÄis her drop-dead beautiful brother, Jason. But Jason may just be a country queer, and in the hills and hollows of the Ozarks, that is about the most dangerous thing a man could be.

Into their midst comes Sammy Barlach. With too many entries on his rap sheet, he's passing through on his way to nowhere, looking to be a loser in new surroundings. Jamalee thinks he might be the muscle she and Jason need.

Editorial Reviews
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.

--Greg Marrs

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Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.14(w) x 7.82(h) x 1.06(d)

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Chapter One

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 vacation.

    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 risk.

    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, hopeful splits.

    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 thinkin' straight.

    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 riches.

    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 it tumbling.

    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 a chef.

    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 are made.

    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 been among.

    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 far away.

    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 slowly pointing.

    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 whimpers.

    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 could rest.

    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 rested.

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What People are saying about this

Ed Gorman
Woodrell is one of those guys whose every utterance "transcends the mystery genre" -- at least according to the more pretentious critics. But read him anyway. He's sly, wily, mean, forlorn, and violent -- and he writes one hell of a sentence. He's also hilarious. He reminds me a lot of one of my all-time favorite writers, Erskine Caldwell. This novel takes a bunch of Ozark scumbags you'd be happy to run over (maybe even back over a few times) and makes them almost bedazzling in their earnest but mindless attempts to perfect a number of con tricks. Woodrell is well worth your time. He's that rarest of all writers, an original. —Ed Gorman

Meet the Author

Five of Daniel Woodrell's eight published novels were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Tomato Red won the PEN West Award for the Novel in 1999. Woodrell lives in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line with his wife, Katie Estill.

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Tomato Red 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
Flying_Pigs More than 1 year ago
Tomato Red was a good read, but had a tendency to jump around a lot.
ReadersFavorite More than 1 year ago
Reviewed by Brenda Ballard for Readers Favorite Sammy lives in that part of society that is typically known as the scum of the earth among the snobs and the like. He doesn't care what they think because he knows that he has probably got to steal them blind and move one (while they collect their precious insurance money and replace it all anyway). As everything goes in his life, he becomes acquainted with a brother and sister, Jason and Jamalee (and their mother), and then with a part of their own world and hassles. Jason is eye candy to the women clients at the beauty shop even though it is well known that the teenager is gay. Jamalee is counting on him to be her ticket out of the small Ozark town to a life that sure as hell must be better than where they are now. Her tomato red hair equals the fire of her temper and determination. Her mother, a woman about town if you know what I mean, lives next door and prefers to be called by her first name lest her man friends think her old. When Jason is found in a local green scum covered pond and the coroner records it accidental, the rest of the group think differently and aim to prove that the country club snobs are involved. This is a mesmerizing audio book to say the least! The cast is amazingly in Ozark character and so believable that you will feel as if you were sitting at the booth behind them as Sammy shares the tale. Bravo to the author! This is one of my favorite books I have read recently.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really great in every way. Story, dialogue, everything. If Charles Portis and Raymond Chandler had a baby, he would be Daniel Woodrell.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Okay! What should we do? And lucky!!! All day tavo time!
JustMyTwoCents More than 1 year ago
Woodrell's stories are great--but it is the voice of his characters that stay with you.  This is the fourth novel of his that I've read, and I can't get enough of him. He introduces you to a region of the country, and a piece of society you might not ever cross paths with, and although the characters are usually hard-boiled and VERY rough around the edges, you end up liking, or at the very least empathizing with them. Woodrell is a wonderful storyteller and a master of language. His stories which center on abject lifelong poverty and how it affects people, can be dark, but there is humor too. Anything by Woodrell is worth reading. 
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Not what I was hopeing for.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really good. Want a review and get 9 out of 13 "comments" that are idiot children playing idiot games. So much for wanting to know about this book. So not buying it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Even though it reflects an interesting "hick" culture that I am not used to being in, it jumps around without explaining much or answering any questions. it left me dissapointed and confused.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Come sign up!!!!! Name and additional info.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Uhhhh im chris and bi think shadows dont exist because you ca feel them touch them or taste it so to ny logic they dont exsist. Other evidence shows that things like blankets steal the ears of little children at night because they are yummy and taste like chicken.....i once interviewed a blanket it promply answered my questions with a blank stare then ate my ears
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really? Ok. Think up 2 powers for yourself. 1 major and 1 minor. I am leader of Legendclan at starshine res 1.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago