Sunday, June 1, 2008

"A tireless gnawing discontent. . ."

I finished my first of three: Tomato Red. I left off last time pondering classes of fiction and have come back to discuss fiction about class. I think Daniel Woodrell, whom I now realize coined the phrase "country noir" with the subtitle of his novel Give Us A Kiss: A Country Noir, objects to being classed as a mystery writer because that kind of label tends to marginalize a work.

It's easy to dismiss something as merely crime fiction, fantasy, western, romance. Those are the lower classes of writing. (Okay, maybe the middle classes.) It's a way of ordering things but also of clarifying that they are not in the coveted category of literature. As an admirer of the craft of songwriting, I gladly reject the notion that there are legitimate classes of creative expression. I don't scoff when I hear about graduate level courses focusing on the music of Tupac Shakur. It's easy to roll your eyes and categorize as a way of dismissing, but wisdom and insight have never been exclusive to one form of expression or one sort of individual.

And I believe Daniel Woodrell is on to something. Maggie has called for a haiku. I didn't get on the last contest, but I'll try this one: a haiku about one of the books we're reading this summer. Mine speaks to Tomato Red:

The trash side of town.
The rich folk look down; they see
disposable lives.

Tomato Red is a novel about class told from the point of view of Sammy Barlow, a poor white wanderer looking for "the bunch that will have me." The novel is set in the town of West Table, located in the Missouri Ozarks. At the start of the narrative Sammy has just arrived in West Table, landed a job at the local dog food factory, and is out to make new friends. He finds his bunch in brother and sister Jamalee (Tomato Red) and Jason, and their prostitute mother Bev, who live in side by side shacks in the most financially challenged part of town known as Venus Holler.

He meets Jam and Jason after he breaks into the home of a vacationing wealthy West Table family in an attempt to impress the dog food factory coworkers he'd done crank with earlier in the evening. (What is crank, anyway?) Jam and Jason had also broken into the home as part of their ongoing research into the lives of the local out-of-town rich. Jason keeps track of the comings and goings of the upper crust at his job as an apprentice hair-dresser at a local salon. Jamalee believes that life is elsewhere and she plans to take her knowledge of how the rich live and make a new life for herself and her brother somewhere else. Anywhere else. The key to her plan is Jason's devastating good looks and hair-styling talent, but she sees the need for a third member of the team to provide muscle and help raise money for the getaway. Sammy is searching for people to call his own. They became fast friends after being chased together from the rich house back to Venus Holler.

What follows is often hilarious and ultimately tragic, but the story is one that provokes thought more so than tears. The novel's strengths are Woodrell's ability to deliver strong social criticism without being the least bit didactic and the wonderful characters he creates, all of whom you empathize with despite their many, many flaws. I can't think of any weaknesses.

I want to share some excerpts that illustrate the exquisite narrative voice of Sammy Barlow because it is the biggest selling point I can offer:

Sammy describes Venus Holler:

Venus Holler was the most low life part of town, so I already knew where it was. I stalled until late afternoon before I let myself drive down there. I felt instantly at home.

This is the kind of address where the wives will know shortcuts to the welfare office and have a bail bondsman's number taped to the fridge.

There were two babes in rusty looking diapers wrestling with a dog in a mud yard across the street. Mom squatted on the porch, cherishing her cigarette, and there was a squad of dead schnapps soldiers scattered to the side of the steps.

Sammy describes the house he's broken into in West Table:

I slithered inside, uncut, and tumbled among the riches.

When I wobbled inside that lit-up room the wind jumped from my chest. I gasped, groaned, mewed. My legs folded beneath me and I fell face first to a soft carpet that felt sweeter than my ex-wife's hair and brought to mind sheep in a flowery meadow high in the Alps or Japan or Vermont or some similar postcard spot from out there in the world where the dear goods I'll never own are made.

You see the insides of a world like that and it sets your own to spinning off-balance, and a tireless gnawing discontent gets to snacking on your guts and spirit. This caliber of place makes you want to discriminate against yourself, basically, as it reveals you as such a loser. A tiny mote of nothin' much just here to muss up the planet these worthies lived so grandly on and wished they could keep clean of you and yours.

I tracked down a youtube clip (actually three of them) of
an interview with Daniel Woodrell in which he discusses several of his works, primarily Tomato Red and Give Us a Kiss, which I'll be reading soon. He told the interviewer that there was a string of unsolved murders in the area where he lived that had not been properly investigated because the victims were all from the wrong part of town. It made him think about how some members of our society are deemed disposable by the powers that be and led him to write Tomato Red. If you read it, it will get you to thinking, too. It is both a beautiful and a useful book.


____Maggie said...

Oh, this book and Give Us a Kiss sound so intriguing! I listened to the interview and he reminds me of Larry Brown, Harry Crews, etc. take on dirty south literature. Are you familiar w/ these authors?

I hadn't heard of Woodrell so I googled him and found one book, The Death of Sweet Mister, on my TBR pile. He is an unsung author that needs a little praise.

BTW, you can actually put the YouTube interview on your blog if you wish. ;D While in YouTube copy and paste the embed to the right in your post.

Thanks for playing and I put you on the list and hopefully more people will read this post. A+++

LeeLee said...

Okay, Maggie, I'm still trying to figure out Mr. Linky!! But I'll give it a try. I just finished The Death of Sweet Mister today. The content is pretty rough but the language is just as beautiful. I've read most of Larry Brown but no Harry Crews--what should I start with?

Susie said...

leelee! Your writing, your expressive way is breathtaking! Oh my goodness we are lucky to have you at Northwest and I will cram every student(that I think won't annoy you..ha!)I can into your classes. I think I have been doing that already,though. Thank you for your post. Thought provoking at the very least. Enjoy the beach!

LeeLee said...

Thanks, Susie! I'm sure it's the Woodrell quotes that are the breathtaking part of my post, but I appreciate the compliment. Please do continue to direct those students my way!

____Maggie said...

I like to start at the beginning. The first books are usually the best since the writers have ruminated with the story for so long. The Gospel Singer is his first. Now, my Dad disagees and feels Blood and Grits is his best, but the most popular of his stuff is A Feast of Snakes.

To me, Charles Portis should be in the dirty south group, too. I like True Grit (first book), hubby swears by Gringos, but his best work is thought to be Dog of the South. ;)

jo ellen said...

what a great review! thank you. I am thinking of reading the book now.