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From Barnes & NobleOzark 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.