“They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got there under canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that . . . ” So begins James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, to which Tomato Red is often compared. Consider: “You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., and new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow . . . ” Woodrell’s extraordinary opening sentence goes on for a page and a paragraph, and by the end of it you know that the narrator (Sammy Barlach) is a poorly-educated, street-wise ex-con who’ll do just about anything to bust out of his hopeless, angry life.
And that’s pretty much the case with Frank Chambers, Cain’s drifter. You know both men will end up in bad trouble, and that a woman will be at the center of it.
Young Sammy hooks up with Jamalee Merridew with her tomato red hair, and her handsome, gay brother, Jason, in Venus Holler. But Sammy meets these two in a high-class house he’s tried to burglarize and he thinks they, too, are high class. That’s what they want to be. They want to be anything but the white trash they are, and Jamalee is full of schemes. These new friends aren’t much, but Sammy lusts after Jamalee, and unlike Frank Chambers, he’s not particularly bright.
When Sammy gets nowhere with Jamalee, he sleeps with Bev, the siblings’ enticing mother, who buys groceries and pays her rent with the help of various male visitors.
As Sammy says, “I always have just wanted to fit in somewhere, and this is the bunch that would have me.”
Jamalee needs to put together some cash, so she and her prettyboy brother can go to south Florida and live glamorously. In a crucial scene, she dolls up and heads to the local country club, seeking honest employment. The country club sees her as a low class whore and, more or less, escorts her off the premises. Bev knows better than to take revenge, but the kids don’t, particularly Jamalee with her white-hot, proletarian rage. In the funny, reckless scenes that follow, the trio kidnaps some pigs and runs them through the greens, destroying the golf course. Not long after, poor Jason, whom Woodrell portrays as likable and innocent, turns up dead.
Murdered by contract, perhaps? By homophobic thugs?
Bev speculates that she’s gathered enough dirt on the leading male citizens of West Table that she has some leverage to bring out the truth. Jamalee is not so sure. Sammy wants to kill somebody but he hardly know whom. And, as he memorably puts it: “You can never mount a true war of us against the rich ’cause the rich can always hire us to kill each other.”
A tough cop shows up with a payoff for this ersatz family to stay silent. They have overnight to decide, and the money sits there, a terrible temptation. It’s a lot of money, but then again, not so much. It means a market price has been determined for exactly what a white trash life is worth.
Woodrell differs radically from Cain in how he brings about his resolution, except that both writers are clever. When you read what’s happened, you may be surprised, but then you’ll realize that denouement was there all along. Suffice it to say, the ending is heart-breaking and violent.