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Seeing Red

The writer’s life and life in Venus Holler, courtesy of Daniel Woodrell.

by Leonard Gill

had a hooker living down near the garden there,” Dan Woodrell explained to me by phone from his home in the Ozark town of West Plains, Missouri. “She was supposed to be ‘pulled up,’ not doing it anymore, and she had a little daughter who’d been over here to use the phone. The girl was quite intelligent, and I began to contemplate her future … .

“And then there was an incident out front where a young girl’s boyfriend tried to run her over. I was outside, and he missed her and wrecked. She was almost 19. By the time the police got there, she didn’t know who the guy was or why he was driving her car. A totally tough kid.

“The two things began to come together in my mind,” Woodrell continued, “and I was trying to think, well, okay, what’s an interesting way of getting at these stories?”

The “interesting way” is Woodrell’s fine new novel, Tomato Red (Holt, 225 pp., $20), and if it doesn’t bring its author the recognition he deserves, perhaps director Ang Lee’s next film, Ride with the Devil (due out next April and based on Woodrell’s second novel, Woe to Live On), will.

I asked Woodrell, who is in his mid-40s and back in his hometown after joining the Marines at 17, thumbing around in his 20s, attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, moving more than a dozen times in more than a dozen years, and writing a series of critically well-received novels, if he was prepared for the public’s response to the film, to the book behind it, and to Pocket Books’ recent reissue of his titles.

“I’m as prepared as I’m gonna get. If not, I’ve spent a long time getting ready. I’ve been a full-time freelancer for 15 years now, and if I was a more rounded person who could make a living doing something else – and also write – I would’ve done that. I never held onto a job in my life. I think I made it six months once. But I’ve recognized this about myself: It’d be better for me to do what I like and sink or swim with it.”

Woodrell assured me that this astounding philosophy, when actually carried out, looks better in hindsight.

“I knew I didn’t want to end up one of those guys lugging a brown sack around the city library, but I’ve also known writers who had talent that was visible early. I felt like I was a person who had to give it everything, or I didn’t have a chance. I’m not a guy who can do it along with a lot of other things. So I thought, if you do give it 100 percent, you still probably won’t get anywhere. But if you don’t, you definitely won’t.”

That inability to do “it” (write) “along with a lot of other things” (including the obvious “thing,” teach) has served Woodrell well, and nowhere better than in his very able ear for the vernacular – to be precise, the small-town/rural/blue-collar variety.

“I’ve never actually left regular, daily life. I’m always around it. I have to be careful myself sometimes that in my efforts to blend in I don’t begin to sound like I can’t spell cat. But I’m always listening, and I’ve always had a weakness for the interesting phrase.”

He might also admit to a weakness for your everyday, tormented Joe, his run-ins with the law, his impotence before the law, and the possibilities of (to rework an overworked word) redemption. Just don’t file Woodrell’s writing under the category “crime.”

“There’s a whole vein of American fiction,” Woodrell said, “that never got the above-board recognition but that you just can’t kill with a stick. It keeps coming back and back. Guys like Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) and Edward Anderson (Thieves Like Us), guys I feel a real kinship with. You can call it social realism, or you can call it noir, or something else altogether that I haven’t thought of.”

How about wrong-side-of-the-tracks/Southern-small-town and definitely not the Waltons? As proof, consider this glimpse of the quiet life in Venus Holler, the low-life end of West Table, Missouri, and the setting for Tomato Red: “One of the drunks over there had got to explaining some experience he’d gone through that had his congregation snorting and spanking their boots on the porch steps, most likely pissing the host over there’s wife off pretty good.”

This, though, is well-captured local color. Consider briefly the novel’s main players and something of the action:

For starters, Sammy Barlach. Current employment: dog-food factory. Hobby: crank. A man “born shoved to the margins of the world, sure” but who “volunteered for the pits.” Sammy is caught breaking and entering a “mansion” by a couple of other breakers and enterers: Jason, 17, a hairdresser, and his sister Jamalee, 19, a redhead and dreamer. The red? A shade “that would be natural on something growing in a garden but not on a person’s head.” The dream? To set her brother up as “escort” to rich women in a “more civilized” area code. (According to the very heterosexual Sammy, “If your ex had [Jason’s] lips you’d still be married.”) Sammy ends up belonging to the kids, and the kids belong, sort of, to a Barbie “gone to seed” named Bev Merridew, “a kind of a kept woman, only nobody keeps her more than overnight.” Bev’s biggest regret in life? Not going blonde sooner. Most enchanting feature? A way with words. Example: “Oh, baby Jam,” she instructs her daughter, “you need to take you a whole day off from whining, sometime, and grow the fuck up during it.”

No, it’s definitely not the Waltons, and yes, the Merridews of Venus Holler may be something else altogether you haven’t thought of. But the author of Tomato Red, front row center to what looks to him as “regular, daily life,” has, and it has to do with crime and chiefly of the heart, though Sammy Barlach would see red and go murderous before admitting to it. The mystery is why a writer of Daniel Woodrell’s caliber is not better known.

Daniel Woodrell booksigning
7 p.m. Tuesday, September 15th
Davis-Kidd Booksellers

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