There 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?”