[Dumb Books] Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

lockekeyMost days, I’m afraid. Sometimes, I worry that my heart is going to stop or explode or fibrillate when no one is around to help me. Sometimes, I worry that my parents or siblings or siblings-in-law or nephew will die horribly. Thankfully, I don’t think about that last one as much as my morbid sister does. Sometimes, I worry that I’m always going to be alone or I’m never going to reach my potential. Every day, it’s something. Most often it’s the heart one, because, several year ago, I had a bout of viral myocarditis that put me in the hospital for a few days. It left me relatively unscathed, except for a tendency to have panic attacks. Why do I mention this? Because, when you know that I almost always am experiencing some level of anxiety, it might be surprising to know that I really like being scared.

To me, it makes sense. I have been repeatedly told by doctors that my heart is just fine. In fact, it has been several years since I’ve been in this good of shape, and my health keeps getting better. My parents, though ancient, are probably healthier than your parents. The other members of my family are in good positions in life. I have a fairly stable job, for now. In spite of all of that, anxiety still sours most days. Anxiety about nothing or, at least, nothing I can change through worry and fret. That’s why I love to be scared. I’m afraid all the time, but it’s fake. My brain is giving me false readings. When I read or watch or participate in something that scares me, the way my brain approaches almost every moment finally falls in line with reality. In that moment, being scared makes sense, and, in a really twisted way, it’s such a relief. So, I seek out scary things, especially around this season, when it’s dark more than light, cold more than warm, and every shadow feels just a tad deeper than usual. Sometimes, I find movies like Saw, which are not scary. Other times, the better times, I find authors like Joe Hill.

My favorite horror novel is Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, and, someday, I’ll talk about it here. I read Heart-Shaped Box all the way through twice before I found out that Joe is Stephen King’s son. That makes a lot of sense. Joe Hill has a similar way of setting up every scene in such a way as to make it spooky with forcing the spookiness. Joe surpasses his dad in two ways, though. 1. He doesn’t use vernacular that people would never actually say (e.g. gee golly gosh). 2. He shows you why you should be afraid, instead of telling you why you should be afraid. He does this especially well in the Locke & Key series.

The first volume of Locke & Key is called Welcome to Lovecraft, which made me eyeroll a bit when I read it. Naming the town where your horror is set after the most renowned weird fiction author of the past century is a bit played. Similarly, giving your protagonists the name Locke, the house Keyhouse, and having the main device of the story be locks and keys is also a little eyeroll inducing. Beyond that, though, the story is both adventurous and terrifying in equal measure.

Locke & Key opens at the close of another story, that of the three main characters’ father Rendell Locke, as he is brutally murdered. I won’t spoil the details of the encounter, but the brutality and evil always leaves me shocked. That evil taints each of the characters in different ways. To the oldest Locke sibling, Tyler, it leaves tremendous guilt; to the middle child, Kinsey, the need to disappear in the crowd; and the youngest, Bode, so many questions without the resources to answer them. It also leaves their mother, Nina, a husk of her former self. After the murder, the Lockes move across the country to live with their uncle in the Keyhouse, situated on an island just off the coast of Lovecraft(ugh), Massachusetts. After the move, things seem to calm down for the family, but it’s not long before the magic of the Keyhouse, the real cause of all their troubles, starts to push its way into the lives of the three Lockes as they attempt regain some sense of normality.

Each character is so well thought out. Tyler is ruled by his guilt and anger, and it becomes frustrating to watch him slam his head against obstacle after obstacle when he would be better suited to just talking to his siblings about how he feels. From the beginning, it’s obvious that Kinsey likes to stand out. So, it’s heartbreaking that, after the murder, she feels the need to become invisible and isolated. Each step she makes out of that pit of isolation is torturous for her. Bode is just a little kid who’s confused about what’s going on. He more readily sees the magic of Keyhouse, and wants to share it with his family. They are all so deep in their own sorrow that they pay his seeming nonsense no mind. Each of their stories are a tragic and realistic examination of how we manage mourning. As if that wasn’t enough, the characters inability to really communicate with each other prevents them from seeing what is so clear to an objective reader: something far worse is coming their way.

Welcome to Lovecraft is an exciting start to Joe Hill’s masterpiece of a graphic novel. It also helps that each of Gabriel Rodriguez’ panels are dripping with emotion and suspense. If you don’t continue to read the series, the last installment of which was published in February, you can still enjoy Welcome to Lovecraft as a standalone piece. I have a feeling, though, that if you love this story a tenth as much as I do, you will be picking up the rest of the books, especially if you read them my preferred way: alone at night with only enough light to illuminate the page. If you do, there will come a moment when you’ll have to make a choice. It’s that moment when you’re sitting in the dark, absorbed by the terror of the characters. Maybe you’ll sense something shift in the corner of the dark room. You’ll start to move to turn on the lights, but that would mean admitting that you think you’re not as alone as you first thought. In that moment, you’ll have to choose. You can set down the book, admit that you’re afraid, and turn on the lights to prove that you’re really alone, or you can sit there, eyes down, praying that whatever does or does not occupy this dark space with you is content to study you as long as you are content to study your book. I recommend the latter, you know, just in case.

[Dumb Books] The Martian by Andy Weir

themartianI really, really want to go to space. I always have. There are reasons why this is not feasible for me. For starters, I’m 27 and have not even begun my astronaut training. Or my earthstronaut training either, if we’re being honest. I am what doctors refer to as “flabulous.” Maybe they don’t call it that, but that’s how I pronounce “obese.” I’m also kind of claustrophobic, and I occasionally have panic attacks. Apparently, all of these are dealbreakers in the astronaut world. Also, the dating world. Still, I want to go to space. At least, I did until I read Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. He explained that most of what your job consists of on a daily basis as an astronaut is homework. You are constantly doing homework. Then, if you’re extraordinarily lucky, you get to go to space and do more homework. That book also explained how incredibly cool it is to do homework in space and how, if you don’t do your space homework perfectly every time, everyone dies, which is basically what the book The Martian by Andy Weir is about.

A good book can make you wish you were a pirate or space pirate or some other form of pirate. A great book can make you wish you had gotten a degree in botany. The Martian is such a book. The second type, not the pirate one. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but I will say that it starts off with a crisis that leaves astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars without a ride or a way to contact home. He quickly gathers his wits and his remaining resources in order to survive. This is done in a very NASA way. He falls back on his training, takes stock of his food, water, air, etc. and makes some quick estimations about what he can do to contact Earth. It’s all interesting in sort of an academic way, but it’s difficult to see how this book is going to go anywhere. Then, he starts to innovate, and it hits you. You’re reading Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Martian Robinson Crusoe. Probably with less racism than the original, though.

The Martian is like a thought experiment that someone had at NASA. If a person were to be stranded on Mars, how would they live using our protocol and methods and maybe a bit of ingenuity? Ugh, describing it like that makes it sound boring. It’s not boring. It’s exciting, mainly because Mars keeps trying to kill him, which he often survives only through sheer luck. That’s one of the things that I love about this book so much. Mark is a brilliant individual. He’s got a degree in botany and is a mechanical engineer, but he still acts very human. He gets too excited about things and makes mistakes. On Earth, those mistakes would mean scorching your hand a bit. On Mars, they mean blowing out your insides into the very thin atmosphere of a hostile planet. After each stupid mistake, he actually learns. Mark is a great character, not because he’s a real hero, but because he is totally not hero material. He makes me think that I could be an astronaut. You know, if it weren’t for the fat thing.

[Dumb Games] Destiny

bmuploads_2013-06-11_3988_destiny_ps4_2d_euAbout 20 years ago, my mother ruined my life. By that, I mean she purposefully, intentionally, and maliciously broke my Loom disc. Breaking the disc to keep me from playing the game wasn’t the worst part. It was the realization that I came to when I saw the plastic shatter in her hands: I loved that game. I had loved other inanimate objects before that, of course. I had stuffed animals, specifically Rabby the rabbit (I wasn’t terribly inventive at that age) and Oliver the tuxedoed bear who was named for the cat in Oliver & Company (He still lives in my closet). I also loved food and books, but, until the moment my mom shattered Loom in her cold, heartless hands, I hadn’t realized that I loved a game. After that epiphany, my life was ruined. I have wasted so many hours of my life sitting in front of monitors and TVs playing countless hours of games all because my mother’s punishment, like almost every punishment anyone has attempted to use on me, way backfired. Thanks, mom.

Like all first loves, after it ended there were others: Secret of Monkey Island, A Link to the Past, Full Throttle, Pokemon Blue (I’m not ashamed to reveal I won a tournament in 1999), Myst, Curse of Monkey Island, Ocarina of Time, Chrono Trigger, GTA III and Vice City, most of the Final Fantasy games, Diablo 2, and Warcraft III. All of those games I played, loved, beat, and moved on, which makes me sound like the video game version of a pickup artist. Then, in 2004, I got into the beta for a game called World of Warcraft, and, much like ten years earlier, my life was ruined. WoW became my second life for the next 7 years. Everything about it appealed to me. The story was expansive and well thought it. The leveling was difficult but straightforward. The endgame content was very challenging but focused on fun. I met some of my best friends on WoW, including my closest friend, Jessica. It’s been years since I played, but I still remember that feeling of logging on just to talk to friends, run around with them in a huge open world, do random things just to get dumb achievements, etc. Recently, I started playing Destiny. Perhaps I hoped that it would rekindle those feelings I had when I played WoW. Perhaps I thought I had found another story I could really sink my teeth into. Perhaps I wanted a chance to meet strangers, team up to do crazy stuff, and part friends. After more than 3 and a half days of game-time, I can safely say that Destiny is really good game which I have come to love, but it has a major issue. All of those things I mentioned about WoW? It doesn’t have any of that shit.

Two years ago, when I first heard that Bungie was making a story-driven, open world MMOFPSRPG (massively-multiplayer online first person shooter role-playing game), I was ecstatic. A company like Bungie, who produced some of the most wildly popular games of all time was going to make the MMO to end all MMOs. What ended up being delivered quite clearly showed that Bungie’s definition of “massive” is very different from definition used by every other person on the planet. Let’s start by tackling the story.

There are rumors that huge portions of the Destiny story were changed before they launched. I don’t know if that’s true or just the popular guess of gamers hopeful that one of the most influential companies of all time hasn’t completely lost the ability to create stories that make sense. Apart from an obviously depressed Peter Dinklage’s performance as your ghost, your nearly constant companion throughout the game, where you can actually hear him thinking that the script is god-awful while he’s reading it, the story makes zero sense. First off, we are left in the dark about almost everything. After the second mission, you to meet The Speaker. Here’s how that interaction goes down:

The Speaker: There was a time when we were much more powerful. But that was long ago. Until it wakes and finds its voice, I am the one who speaks for The Traveler. You must have no end of questions, Guardian.

Are… Are you talking to me? Sorry, it’s a little weird that you just started talking like we were in the middle of a conversation without saying hello. I thought you might have been on the phone or something. Anyway, I have so many questions, and my ghost tells me you are the guy to talk to. First question: What is the Darkness?

The Speaker: In its dying breath, The Traveler created the Ghosts to seek out those who can wield its Light as a weapon–Guardians–to protect us and do what the Traveler itself no longer can.

Okay, that really didn’t answer my question. Again, what is the Darkness? You know the thing that “killed” the Traveler? That thing. What is it. Is it like the anti-Traveler? Is there a big black ball out there that hates our big white ball?

The Speaker: I could tell you of the great battle centuries ago, how the Traveler was crippled. I could tell you of the power of The Darkness, its ancient enemy. There are many tales told throughout the City to frighten children. Lately, those tales have stopped. Now, the children are frightened anyway. The Darkness is coming back. We will not survive it this time.

Yes! Those are the exact things I want you to tell me. Go ahead.

Ghost: Its armies surround us. The Fallen are just the beginning.

The grown-ups are talking, Dink. Now, Speaker, seriously, brass tacks. What is the Darkness?

The Speaker: You must push back the Darkness. Guardians are fighting on Earth and beyond. Join them. Your Ghost will guide you. I only hope he chose wisely. *wanders off*

Ghost: I did. I’m sure of it. We’re in this together now.

Uh…

LOST

The end of the next mission isn’t much better. After you kill a tremendous number of aliens, Dinklbot hits you with this:

Ghost: They didn’t get much. Kept hitting an active firewall. Old Earth, Russian. The legends are true. A Warmind did survive the Collapse. Rasputin… an AI built to defend Earth. He faced The Darkness and survived. And he’s protecting something here in the Cosmodrome. We have to find a way to reach him.

What legends? What’s a Warmind?

Next mission, after killing another tremendous number of different aliens:

Ghost: The Array… it’s controlled by Rasputin. The last Warmind. He won’t let me in. But it’s connecting to defense constructs all across the system. There could be something out there.

WHAT IS A WARMIND?!

The game suffers from this penchant for not telling you anything of consequence throughout the entire story. It gets so bad that sitting through Dink’s narration at the beginning of each mission seems like a waste of time.

Ghost: We gave up the Moon to keep the Hive away from Earth. We hoped that would be enough for them. I used to look up here at night and wonder what the Hive were doing, but the only activity I could ever pick up was hazy–like it was blocked or buried.

Is it okay, if we just sit here in silence? I think I would prefer silence.

Combine the poor storytelling with the fact that, every now and then, I unlock a new piece of the game lore. Excellent! How do you access this important part of the story, I hear you asking? Well, first, put down your controller. Then, get up from the couch, sit at your computer, log on to bungie.net, put in your PSN or XBL username and password, navigate to the grimoire cards, and start reading! I’m kidding there is an easier way to do it. It involves downloading an app to your phone, logging on there, and navigating to the grimoire. Either way, you have to look up the story outside of the game. It’s like going to a movie and being handed a book as you walk in.

You: What’s this?

Theatre Employee: Oh, it’s the accompanying material for the movie.

You: Oh, no, I just want to watch a movie that includes most or all of the story that I will need to understand and enjoy it.

Theatre Employee: Well, tough shit, because, in this movie, every now and then, you will become totally lost by the nonsensical dialog between characters that are barely introduced or referenced. Then, you will need to open the book, hunt for the next chapter, read about something sort of related to the movie that doesn’t answer your questions, and go back to watching the movie. Enjoy!

So, the story is not good. The social aspect (You know, the thing that makes it an MMO) is not there. It is totally and completely absent from the game. Here are the ways that I can contact another player that I don’t already know: 1. wave at them, 2. point at them, 3. dancing at players, 4. leave the gamer entirely and send them a message that, owing to PSN’s habit of suddenly breaking for no reason, may or may not arrive within the next hour. There are no other ways to contact someone who isn’t already on your friends list. Even when you play a part of the game where you are forced into a group with other players, like PvP or a Strike, Bungie doesn’t let you speak to them. Basically, the game is only multiplayer in the fact that other players are playing the game at the same time as you are. The game is like an introverts idea of a fun party, everyone present and not interacting.

Bungie also has not consulted anyone else on what an “open world” should look like. When I heard it was going to be a sci-fi/fantasy open world MMO, I imagined some crazy version of GTA V set in space. Instead of anything resembling the vibrant, huge city in GTA V, Destiny has small desolate wastelands for the player to cross populated by nothing and no one. On Earth, the largest and most well thought out of the worlds, a player can run from the far side of the map to the other side in less than four minutes. I’ve tested this. Worse than that, the worlds feel like they’re on rails. I can’t navigate over buildings and ruins any way I please to get to the next area. I have to go through the same room with the same four enemies in it each time. When I’m farming public events, I take the same path from one point to the next simply because that’s the only way to get from one point to another. The same might as well be a side-scroller.

The story isn’t good, they give you a book to read that doesn’t answer any questions, the social aspect is missing, and the world less open than most of the RPGs that came out for the last generation of consoles. What’s good about it? For all its faults, which are numerous, the game is incredibly fun. If you ignore the fact that the story is stupid or that you can only talk to your friends, you’ll find that time spent shooting aliens and other players is super exciting. I grouped with two random players, neither of which I could talk you thank you Bungie, and we were doing this strike, which is basically just an extra hard mission. One of the players disconnected early on, and the other player and I had to soldier on together. The enemies and encounters were built around you having three players for this mission, and when we finally killed the last giant evil alien guy, I jumped out of my chair, slammed my hand into the blades of the fan directly above me, cursed, and cheered. It felt like a real victory. That other player and I waved, pointed, and danced at each other in our triumph. We jumped around on our magic-powered rocket packs, and punched each other a lot. We weren’t able to speak, but I think we both felt the same. It was a feeling close to what it felt like to conquer something in World of Warcraft. Close, but not the same.

Destiny will get better. They’ll fix the story with the DLC and patches. They’ll figure out what Blizzard, the makers of WoW, did a long time ago, that it is always better to have an open discussion about the game with your players than to make decisions alone in the dark. Those things that I don’t like will be fixed. For now, though, the game is broken, but, broken or not, I still love it for what it is.

[Dumb Books] Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Saga, Volume 1

A few weeks ago, I read a really funny tweet written by this girl who lives in my city. Now, I read a lot of tweets during the day, and most of the people I follow are very funny. What this girl wrote caught me off guard, though. I started reading more of her tweets during class, laughing at every one, which bothered the students I was attempting to ignore, and I spent the next several hours working on a funny reply to that first one I had read. Please, note that this effort was expended to make first contact with a girl who I did not know and was not in any way talking to me on Twitter. She was talking to my friend, but, much as I do at parties, I attempted to worm my way into the conversation by being funny. Funny is sort of my go-to in most situations. Every situation, really. Anyway, it worked. For a second, at least. I was part of the joke for a few tweets. Then, she was on to something else, and I had to wrack my brain to figure out what else I could do to catch her attention. Since then, I’ve probably popped up on her radar a few times with a joke or comment or something, but I haven’t made real contact, yet. Maybe, one day, I’ll actually meet her. Maybe not. The thing is, I barely know anything about her, other than she is one of the funniest people I have ever encountered. She could be a horrible person who drowns kittens for fun. Like Hitler for kittens. Kitler. But, from what I’ve seen her write, I think she’s amazing. Why am I mentioning this? A few reasons, but mostly because I want you to pity me before I mention that I read comics.

Telling people you read comics is a bit like farting in the line for communion. No one knows how to react. So, most often, they pretend they heard nothing. If they do react at all, the reaction normally happens in three stages. The first reaction is commonly incredulity. “You read… comics? Like Spider-Man?” Yeah. Well, no, I don’t read Spider-Man. I do read other comics, though. Comics like the one I’m writing about today, Saga. The second most common reaction usually follows quickly after the first. It’s the sound people make when they see a really ugly dog. It’s an “aww” with a slight head tilt and a scrunching of the eyebrows into a worried look, like they just saw a toddler with brittle bone disease attempting to descend a spiral staircase. The third reaction is palpable pity, especially noticeable, if you attempt to explain why you read comics. It’s like they found out that the reckless, brittle-boned toddler has leukemia. In light of that, I wanted to set you up to feel pity right away and skip the other two reactions. Someday, I may write an article about why I read comics, but, today, I just want you to know why I love Saga.

Saga is a story about a little girl that two armies fear. Not fear in the way I still have nightmares about the troll from Earnest Scared Stupid, but feared in the way the US government fears people like Edward Snowden. They aren’t so much afraid of the baby girl herself, unless some of them have pedophobia or something, but rather what she represents. To them, she represents the worst possible fate for their people: peace. See, the armies come from a planet called Landfall and its moon called Wreath. They have been fighting for so long that what was once a war has now become a blood feud. The feud powers the governments of both the people of Landfall and Wreath. Since they look a little different from one another, it’s easy to keep the bloodshed going with propaganda calling the people to kill “those animals from the (planet|moon; circle one).” Thankfully, unlike they do in this story, we don’t have the problem of being goaded into hating people for insignificant differences like the way we look.

The girl’s mother and father are from Landfall and Wreath, respectively, and were once soldiers in the never ending war. At the time of the story, they have long deserted their armies to be together and live outside of the conflict. It’s not that easy, however. The governments of Landfall and Wreath, wanting to go to war without all the messy bloodshed on their front lawns, have outsourced the battle to every corner of the galaxy. With the governments of both sides trying to kill them and their daughter and the war being waged on nearly every planet in the galaxy, the only choice the new family has to survive is to keep running.

What I love about this story isn’t that it’s set in space; though, I do love good space opera. It’s not that it involves both sci-fi technology and magic, which is cool. It’s that, at the heart of it, it’s about people that just don’t want to fight, anymore. They have realized wars of ideals are stupid and pointless. The only people that ever suffer from conflict are the peons and the bystanders, and the only people who ever gain anything are the ones already on top. They don’t care about stopping the war. They’re not revolutionaries. They’re just tired parents. They’re running from two governments who see their little girl as proof that the people of Landfall and Wreath aren’t really so different. The governments know that, if other people find out about her, they would come to the same conclusion. Then, the perpetual motion machine of war might be brought to a halt by the mere existence of a little girl whose parents decided fighting wasn’t for them. That emotion is even mirrored in the people that the government sends to kill them, from the robot prince who is about to become a father himself to the freelancer who can’t escape responsibility no matter what he tries.

This isn’t the first volume of a story where love conquers all. That’s certainly not the moral. It’s the story of a two people who saw that they had something in common with each other, and decided that taking a risk to be together is better than the relative safety of being apart. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I should have the courage to just ask out that girl. Maybe.

[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?”