[Dumb Books] Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

Tomato RedThere are loads of things that I do just for the fun of it. I play games for fun. I eat Italian food for fun. I date Italian women for fun. This usually results in the previously mentioned eating Italian food for fun. I even sing karaoke for fun. I especially enjoy reading for fun. There’s nothing more refreshing after a day of having to answer an unrelenting torrent of questions like “What does numerical mean?” than diving into a stupid book about talking swords or wand duels or a young adult novel where everyone but the protagonist is one dimensional on purpose. Maybe I enjoy reading all of those things because I hate my dull, fat life that I should be grateful for because I wasn’t born into the middle of an Arab/Dwarf civil war. Maybe it’s because I’m so willfully bored that anything describing events that are neither here nor now no matter how well or poorly written register as fun to my atrophied brain. Well, almost anything.

Tomato Red is like the quantum superposition of not fun. That sentence makes no sense, and Stephen Hawking would be angry to read it, if he subscribed to Passionate About Dumb Things. Speaking of Stephen Hawking, he believes that there are infinite universes with infinite possibilities. Each universe is slightly different than the one next to it. In one of these universes, I ate pizza last night (hint: unfortunately, not this one). In another universe, I ate nothing because laziness won out over hunger (hint: unfortunately, it was this one). However, in no universe would anyone call Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red a “fun read.” That is, unless they also did something like show the Gary Sinise version of Of Mice and Men at their 13th birthday party, but I don’t think even my brother, who actually did that I’m not joking, would describe this novel as fun. He might describe it as great, though. I would.

There are things you do to say you have done them. For some people, that’s running a marathon (gross). For others is flying to Africa on a tax-deductible vacati-I mean mission trip (Ebola). For me, it’s reading things that make people whose opinions I shouldn’t care about impressed with how smart and educated I am so that I can feel good about myself. For people better than me, like my sister, Myla, it’s something else entirely. I recall some years ago seeing her watch a show called Country Boys, which was the depressing saga of two kids from a coal mine town in rural Kentucky as they tried to transition from boyhood to manhood. After watching it with her for half an hour or so, I asked her why she was watching the dismal story of these boys who were very plainly going nowhere in life. Her answer, “If I don’t, who will?” It was a good point, and one I believe Daniel Woodrell would echo.

Tomato Red is a book full of “if I don’t, who will.” It starts off with some autobiographical narration by the main character, Sammy Barlach, and could be accompanied by a soft banjo and washboard duo without souring the mood. Sammy is a hard man in a hard town in a hard world, and he knows it doesn’t get any better for men like him. Through a twist of fate and some cheap drugs, Sammy meets the Merridew siblings, and he proves the axiom that misery loves company to be true. The first half of the novel is propelled by his relationships with Jamalee and Jason Merridew as they seek a way out of the no horse town called West Table, MO.

Jamalee has a plan to make enough scratch to get them a few bus tickets to a better life, and, to a man with no prospects of anything better than the next high, the dream of a life away from people who know exactly what you’re worth sounds like a fantasy just close enough to real for Sammy to bite into. Unfortunately, the plan involves pimping out Jamalee’s beautiful brother Jason to the more wealthy ladies of West Table, which strains to breaking a boy still struggling with his sexuality. The first half of the book, dealing with the execution of Jamalee’s plan, is like watching one of those Russian dashcam videos[maybe NSFW]. You read on knowing that a car is about to swerve in front of another, and, when it finally does in the middle of the book, you are still surprised.

The second half of the book deals with the aftermath of the wreck, and Sammy, who has always been a violent man, starts to clench his fists in earnest. You can feel the anger of a man who had, after being alone for so long, finally had something akin to a family. When that family is hurt, Sammy is hurt. When that family gets angry, Sammy gets furious. Sammy is a ticking time-bomb, and, much like the first half, you know what is going to happen. Still, when it does, it is no less surprising for all your preparedness.

Tomato Red is one of the angriest books I’ve ever read, and that has nothing to do with the fury of Sammy Barlach. Daniel Woodrell writes the same way gunshot victims bleed out. As you get closer to the end of the book, the narrative that started so slow and easy becomes a distressed torrent of words. You can feel the heat of Daniel’s anger in the text. It’s as if he’s screaming, “These people exist! They live and die this way! See them!” Daniel is angry. He’s angry that the world allows poverty. He’s angry that poverty creates people like Sammy and Jamalee and Jason. He’s angry that poverty creates a cycle of life that totally lacks dignity and is nearly impossible to escape. He’s angry that the people who should care don’t. That’s why the book is great. That’s why this book is not fun. If someone comes across you reading this short novel and asks you about it, after you tell them and they scrunch up their face and ask, “Why are you reading something like that,” you’ll know what my sister meant when she said, “If I don’t, who will?”

[Dumb Books] Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

The_front_cover_of_the_book_Raising_Steam_by_Terry_PratchettTerry Pratchett’s most recent novel is going to be one of his last, and that’s a big problem for me. See, I’ve been reading his novels almost as long as I’ve been alive, and I don’t want that state of affairs to end. I don’t have a choice in the matter, though, because, soon enough, his Alzheimer’s will eat away one of those witty brain cells too many. After that, he will either decide that enough is enough and take his own life, as he has been threatening to do for years, or he will wither away and a die a different man from the one who has written 40 novels in this series alone. Either way, it’s stupid, and I don’t like it. I do like Raising Steam, though. Let’s talk about that.

For those of you who have never read a Terry Pratchett novel before, let me get you familiarized with the landscape. Picture a world. No, that’s already wrong. Picture a sea turtle swimming through the ocean. Got that? Good, now, remove the ocean, and replace it with space. On the back of that turtle, imagine four elephants, and, on their backs, a pizza-shaped world that has continents instead of pepperoni, a great mountain instead of the little white three-legged thing they put in the middle to keep the box from touching the cheese, and magic instead of garlic pesto sauce. Now, use a little finger spreading movement on the smartphone of your mind to zoom in to an area midway between the crust and the disappointingly undercooked middle part, and you will see the great city-state of Ankh-Morpork. That is where most of Mr. Pratchett’s stories take place, and, most importantly, the story that I’ve spent 300 words, mostly involving suicide and pizza, getting around to telling you about.

This book, at its heart, is about trains. Also, at its extremities. It’s basically all about trains. The age of the horse and cart are over, because, for the second time in known history, steam power is coming to the Disc. Owing to its volatile nature, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, the preeminent city on the Disc, puts his top con artist in charge of making sure it doesn’t explode in everyone’s faces. This is the third book in the saga of gentleman swindler and all around smartass Moist von Lipwig, who, in his first appearance in the Discworld series in the novel Going Postal, was forced into the service of Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician, Havelock Vetinari, on the threat of a second hanging. It’s complicated, I know. As Tommy Wiseau would say in reference to any conceivable negative event, “Don’t worry about it.” Actually, he would say, “Dohn worreh uhbowt eht.” All that you really need to know to understand this book is that times they are a-changin’, and not everyone is happy about it.

Terry Pratchett has always contended that, though his Discworld novels are pure fantasy, they have always been written to mirror the world in some way. An accurate portrayal or not, Raising Steam certainly paints a picture of how Terry views the world, today. The moral of this story is built out of the previous Discworld novel, Snuff, which is basically about racism. Or, well, species-ism. However, whereas Snuff was about treating another race as inferiors, Raising Steam is about applying a set of guidelines to your own race that, if a member of said race fails to follow, makes them different enough to hate or even kill with impunity. A small group of Luddite Dwarves have decided what it means to be a Dwarf, and any Dwarf who disagrees is immediately labeled as “not Dwarf,” an enormous dishonor for Dwarves. This pressure to conform to the opinions of a small but vocal minority under threat of violence certainly speaks to issues happening in the world at large, today, but, unlike the real world, almost none of the Discworld inhabitants have trouble seeing the forest for the trees. No one blames all Dwarves for the terroristic actions of that vocal minority. If only we were so understanding.

The racial tension doesn’t really drive the story for the first two-thirds of the book. Instead, it serves as a nervous backdrop to what, at first, you assume to be the main story, namely starting a rail road. Moist von Lipwig, ever the one to be caught up in a new enterprise, exchanges his begrudging attitude toward the rail business for one of boyish enthusiasm as soon as he sees the power that trains have over people. Moist, in an ever unclear role as the representative of the city, basically takes control of the first fledgling rail company, owned by the inventor Dick Simnel and angel investor Sir Harry King, a man who both literally and figuratively clawed his way up from the muck. Moist forsakes his other responsibilities at the behest of the Patrician to complete a rail line to the seat of political power in the vaguely Transylvanian nation of Überwald, home to the heads of many races including the Low King of the Dwarves, for a vague reason that isn’t really revealed until the third act.

The story maintains a driving pace that keeps it interesting even when the narrative wears a bit thin. In spite of its rather serious subject, it never fails to be funny. Moist von Lipwig is, as always, the hero he didn’t realize that he was, and the Patrician, who plays a wonderfully large role in this book, is enigmatic and somewhat sinister while never even hinting at leaving the side of the angels. The characters are fun, the message is clear, and the humor is consistent. It harkens back to the older Discworld novels of the late 90s and early 00s. If this were the last book Terry Pratchett were to write, I would be content. Not happy. Content.

Featured Image: “The front cover of the book Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett” by Terry Pratchett – Terry Pratchett. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Raising Steam via Wikipedia

Hi. I’m Aaron.

I’m a nerd who likes lots of stuff, often with worrying levels of intensity. My job is to fix peoples problems without rolling my eyes. I make a okay living doing it, which is okay because I spend most of my time working or reading or writing or watching things or playing stuff or eating dinner with friends, not expensive stuff like attending a caviar tasting on the Orient Express while plotting a murder. I have lived up to none of my father’s expectations. I love Memphis in the way you wish your cat loved you but never will because he’s a cat and just thinks of you as a mobile grocery store and hot water bottle. Welcome to my brain.