Before you begin Daniel Woodrell's sizzling Tomato Red, strap yourself into your chair. The story starts with a firing-off-the-line, hell-bent-for-leather sentence that leaves readers breathless, laughing, and begging for more speed. None of this is new for Woodrell, whose five previous novels have garnered wild praise from authors as diverse as James Ellroy and E. Annie Proulx. And there's a reason: Woodrell relies on corset-tight prose, too-real realism, and one hell of an ear for dialogue as he writes about tough guys and tougher broads, thuggish rednecks and determined drunks who live in gut bucket poor locales. With Tomato Red Woodrell returns to the fictional hamlet of West Table, Missouri, also the locale of his 1996 novel Give Us a Kiss. Here he explores the bonds between Sammy Barlach, an ex-con trying hard to make it as a square john, and the Merridews: Bev, the prostitute/mom; Jason, the stylish son who may be gay; and the indomitable Jamalee, the feisty redhead who wants to use anyone and anything to get out of Venus Holler, West Table's name for the wrong side of the tracks. Woodrell wanders this territory with complete mastery, capturing the sidelong glances that develop into whispers, the low-rent corruption of small town politics and the downright hostility aimed at Sammy and the Merridews by the authorities and the more upstanding residents of West Table. On the surface, these character are Ozark riffraff, but Woodrell refuses to either romanticize or patronize them. They live fast, drink hard, and skate along the gray area of the law, but they endure the hardships and slights, clutching their dreams when all signs point to nightmare. This amalgam of fatalism and optimism is cut with a delicate balance of violence, humor, and heart. Like Faulkner's early writing about the Snopes family, Woodrell infuses his story with family and place. The family doesn't sit around a dinner table and talk about their day, and West Table is not a very attractive place, but it is where Sammy and the Merridews are, so they try to make the most of it. Normally poor white folks are addressed in mocking, derisive and flat tones, but not here. Woodrell paints them fully, transcending simplistic stereotypes to craft characters whose foibles and complexities ring with compassion, fortitude, and authenticity. Noir master Raymond Chandler once said that good prose should be lean, racy and vivid. Like all of Woodrell's fiction, Tomato Red has these in spades. So sit on the porch, pour some Maker's Mark over ice, buckle up and let Woodrell's singular voice carry you right into a glorious Ozark sunset. Mark Luce is a writer in Lawrence, Kansas.

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