“I was a kick-around mutt from Blue Knee, Arkansas … on my own slow ramble throughout sincere poverty and various spellbinding mishaps,” says Sammy Barlach, the narrator of “Tomato Red.” Central to this novel, the sixth from Missourian Daniel Woodrell, are Barlach’s mishaps in Venus Holler, a skanky little Ozark hamlet that “had the shape of a collapsed big thing, something that had been running and running until it ran out of gas and flopped down exhausted exactly here … Scrub timber and trash piles and vintage appliances spread down the slopes and all around the leaning houses to serve as a border between here and everything that wasn’t here.”
That particular gap — between here and not-here — is as central to “Tomato Red” as narrator Barlach is; it might be said, in fact, that they play the same role. Barlach, the sort of homemade-tattoo-and-gimme-cap loser you find in the trailer park lit of Harry Crews and Larry Brown, drifts into Venus Holler and into the lives of a trio of its denizens: Bev Merridew, a pillar of Venus Holler whoredom, “a Barbie who has gone to seed on roadhouse whiskey and pan-fried chicken”; her 19-year-old daughter, Jamalee (she of the “tomato red” hair), a 5-foot goth Lolita with big plans to make it past the outskirts of town; and her brother Jason, a young man far too beautiful (“hoodoo sculptors and horny witches knitted that boy,” Barlach says) and far too gay to live long in Venus Holler. Jamalee sees Barlach as the muscle she and her brother need to bust out of town — someone to “help … keep the nightmare straight,” as Jamaleee puts it. Barlach has been places, seen things; he knows the not-here. At the novel’s start, he’s got nothing but time on his hands. It’s not long before that time is replaced by a corpse, a mess of hot trouble and a goodly bit of female flesh.
As with his last novel, “Give Us a Kiss,” Woodrell bills “Tomato Red” as “country noir” — a self-created genre that might have emerged decades earlier if Raymond Chandler and Erskine Caldwell had ever sat down to write a book together. Like Chandler, Woodrell writes with an almost filmic sense of place. The terrain of Venus Holler (and its parent town, West Table) plays as large a role as any of Woodrell’s characters, a vividly rendered townscape that — despite a token cast of bourgeois badmen — is the root of the story’s villainy. In the end, however, you may have a stronger sense of that terrain than you do of any of Woodrell’s characters. Barlach pours out sermons about the differences between rich and poor — between the here and not here — but the people Woodrell uses to illustrate those differences never develop into anything more complex or sympathetic than sketches.
“All fiction begins with genre,” said John Gardner, “but good fiction transcends it.” For crime fiction, this is heady stuff, written so sharply and stylishly that one can almost hear Woodrell howling with delight when he hits a stinger of a line (and there are many). What “Tomato Red” lacks, however, is the power to transcend the limits of its own genre — the whiff of humanity that great fiction emits.