The power of popular forms has always been harnessed for literary writing, of course, including travel narratives, murder stories, fairytales, folktales, myth and all manner of quasi-historical stories. Just as interesting, there’s a constant recycling from popular to literary and back again. So if you like, Rory, I’ll forever never mention the word “genre” again in any qualitative sense, as long as you stop insisting that all writing is good, and you keep your cousin Bobby, that young poet who throws everything, past and present, in the dustbin of mediocrity except the “innovation” he’s currently working on, away from me. Janus H. Kant, you guys together are the two-faced monster of all or nothing.
In Part I of this post I wrote about a poorly-written novel full of easily-identifiable conventions of the manly adventure novel. Now I’d like to turn to good writing, by Daniel Woodrell, best known as the author of Winter’s Bone, which (like several of Alistair MacLean’s novels) was also made into a successful film. His novel Tomato Red, which Rory guided me to, and which won the PEN West award in 1999, successfully combines commercial and literary impulses.
Its narrator is a man-child named Sammy Barlach, “a rugged ol’ long, tall cowpoke,” as someone calls him, teasingly. But he’s no cowpoke, he’s “a new hand at the dog-food factory” in West Table, Missouri, and that job doesn’t last long either. He naturally falls in with a “co-ed circle of bums” in a trailer court, and after a beer, a shared jug of tequila, and a small pile of meth, he and his new pals head over to the nice side of town to burgle a “mansion” whose owners are in France. The pals leave him there to take the rap before he’s even in the window, but he goes through with it anyway, in hopes they’ll like him (“I just love people, I guess”). In his state he only pilfers brie and vodka before passing out. When he wakes, the young, rich married couple who’ve tied him to a chair turn out to be a poor brother and sister who’ve also broken into the house, and as the cops arrive, they and he all run for the hills together.
These three, Sammy, Jamalee and Jason Merridew, plus their mother, a kind-hearted, commonsensical prostitute in Venus Holler, form an extended family, which Sammy has been yearning for and intends for nothing to destroy. Jam’s ambitions are lofty: To pimp her brother to high-class rich women as a way of moving up and out of the Ozarks. Sammy is brought in as muscle. Jason is beautiful enough that it clearly might work, except he’s gay and has little intention of going through with it. They cross the wrong people, and trouble builds. The book turns into a sort of murder mystery.
The setup reminds me of South Florida crime novels, especially those by Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard. Like them, it has genre inflections (“houses [with] their roofs pulled down low over the front stoops, like hats worn at a sulky angle”), violence, and deadbeat/quirky/grotesque characters (Sammy’s crank-snorting gal pal has “teeth…the size of shoe-peg corn”) that flirt with being types.
But these conventions aren’t the focus of Woodrell's novel. Once we get inside his language and become familiar with his comic tone, we find his characters are complex, tender, thoughtful, and even poetic. What’s at stake in the book is not some easy plot-driven resolution; it’s class, agency, and a nearly existential loneliness that transcends subjective experience and becomes universal.
Here’s Sammy narrating the contents of the “mansion” he’s broken into:
I’d say what such things as I saw in that room were, if I knew the proper names of such things, though I’d bet heavy I’ve never heard those names spoken. I’m sure such thing have personal names—those special moody lampshades made of beadwork, and a chair and footstool put together with, like, weaved leather hung on frames of curled iron or polished rare bones, maybe, and end tables that had designs stabbed into them and stuffed with gold leaf or something precious, a small and swank desk over by the far wall, and a bookshelf so old our Revolution must’ve happened off to the sides of it, carved up with fine points and nicely shined, with a display of tiny statues and dolls arranged just so all across it.
Pretty soon I crawled away from the light, back to the dark parts of the mansion. That sinking feeling set in. Truly, I felt scared, embarrassed for the poorly decorated life I was born to.
There’s something about the rhythms of that speech, combined with the power of observation and an extreme humility, that reminds me of Huck Finn. Woodrell writes a few counties down from Twain country, and you can hear it in his voice. Then there’s the civilizing process:
Jamalee had acquired a great thick dilapidated and somewhat dampened book of manners, and the book smelled like a cotton picker’s hatband. She spotted lessons in that volume and tossed them before us, and we three snuffled after the kernels of meaning. The main idea was that we should each of us shed the skin that limited us, the social costumery we wore that communicated our low-life heritage at a glance, and adopt a new carriage and a routine of manners and that air of natural-born worthiness that the naturally born worthy displayed. […]
Jamalee would bow her tomato head, dive into the warped pages of that book, then trot out more protocol you couldn’t imagine ever needing to know. She was teachy around many themes: learn this, taste this, become that different thing. She wanted us to become ‘civilized,’ which I think to her meant to ape the quality folks right down to spittin’ at our own shadows.
Compare that with Twain’s Huck:
The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways…. She put me in them new clothes again, and I couldn't do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up. […] When you got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals….
After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn't care no more about him, because I don't take no stock in dead people.
Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn't. She said it was a mean practice and wasn't clean, and I must try to not do it any more. That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don't know nothing about it. Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff, too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.
Twain and Woodrell are both on to the same aspects of middle-class life, all its piety, pretension, hypocrisy, and coded mannerisms (which Flaubert so dearly hated in his own bourgeoisie), the consumerism made possible by a system that ignores the inequity and injustice it creates, and the veneers we use to prettify it to prevent wholesale disruption.
In an essay called “Writer and Region,” Wendell Berry writes that Twain missed his ending in Huck Finn. Faced with a return to domestic life at the end of the novel, Huck famously says, “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.”
For Berry, to light out for the Territory is to abnegate responsibility, again, and now that Huck has taken the hero’s journey and achieved moral consciousness, that’s a misfire.
But try to imagine Huck grown up, 10 or 20 years older, a sexual being, with adult perspective and experience. If a writer were to portray him with any psychological reality, what would he look like? There’s a temptation to say he would become the wise, humorous, and bawdy Twain. But the real-life model for Huck probably didn’t thrive. Wikipedia says:
Tom Blankenship has passed from history with few solid clues as to his ultimate fate. His sister told Twain near the turn of the century that both of her brothers were dead, and local rumor says that Tom perished in a cholera epidemic…. Twain himself told reporters that he heard that Tom moved to Montana and was a well-respected Justice of the Peace, but this is thought to be wishful thinking by some historians. Another Hannibal…old timer related that Tom ‘left Hannibal for the penitentiary.’ Mention is made in the local newspapers that he was arrested for stealing food repeatedly in the early 1860s. No death certificate has ever been located for Tom…. No record of Tom serving in any military during the [C]ivil [W]ar has emerged as of this date, either. A local was quoted as saying the family ‘played out’ and disappeared from the area by the time the war was over.
One can understand Twain’s wishfulness, but then he was more Tom Sawyer than Huck Finn, a middle-class child who could only admire the "freedom" of Tom Blankenship. He hoped for his friend what the system might provide someone not of the underclass.
What would Huck become in our age rather than in expansionist, industrial-revolution America? In a time of outsourcing and part-time jobs, service industries, well-marked and –guarded property lines, high rates of incarceration for lesser drug offenses, and economic disparity surpassing Twain’s Gilded Age?
My feeling after reading Tomato Red is that we’re looking at one possibility in Sammy Barlach. I won’t completely give away what happens to Sammy by the end of the novel, other than to say somebody winds up with a head crunched-in like a pumpkin. It’s a complete surprise, as we’re surprised by sudden turns in life, yet is completely inevitable, given the rage and disappointment at work through much of the book. As with classical tragedy, fate has set up the switches and they must merely be flicked. This short-circuits any commercial plot finality or easy consistency of comic tone. It’s good literature is what it is.
You stuck around patiently in these posts in hopes of seeing the naked squat guy, a genre device if I ever saw one, so here he is at last. As my Forms class prepared to compare Tomato Red to other commercial fiction, I read aloud a couple of paragraphs from a review I wrote here five years ago of Ian Fleming’s genre novel Casino Royale, a very bad book, and subsequent movie (the one with Daniel Craig):
Fleming’s Bond is oddly naïve, for a man of the world, but Fleming thinks he’s on it. Bond imagines that an evil-doer’s “inhumanity would not come from infantilism but from drugs. Marihuana, decided Bond.” Bond never thinks of “the bitch” as much more than sex partner and hindrance to his work, so when he suddenly declares, after they have sex the first time, that he’s gonna stride right off that beach and ask her to marry him, he sounds like some sentimental man-child. The guy falls in love like a sixth-grade boy at a girl’s volleyball game. And what’s the big deal with becoming a Double O? Bond only shot one guy from the next building over and then botched a second hit. My cousin Billy Joe capped more guys at Friday night poker.
There are too many examples of unintentional humor in the novel to mention here, but they include the time Bond is dragged into a torture chamber and condemns the interior decoration as tacky (“a flimsy-looking mirrored sideboard…contradicted the faded pink sofa….”) and the time “Bond guessed that hair covered most of [a bad guy’s] squat body. Naked, Bond supposed, he would be an obscene object.” Dude, don’t imagine him naked, then.
I was gratified when the talented writer I drafted from a bar fight in Argentina began to giggle like a little girl and couldn’t stop. Hey, now that’s popular writing.
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