...and the moral of the story is that home is where they have to let you in. Sammy's looking for home. Who doesn't want a place to belong? The search, this longing for "my people" is primal. Some of us find them, some of us don't. Sometimes it's family, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's a good thing when we find them, sometimes not. Some of us search for this connection without being fully aware that we're doing so. E.B. White's character in The Door says, "My heart has followed all my days, something it cannot name." Sammy names his heart's desire... 'a bunch that'll have me'. <i>I wasn't going to care much for being lonely again, if that's what was coming. That hadn't been said-get out-it hadn't come to that yet, but I could see the same calamity that always hounded me hunkered at the edge of the campfire light, yawning and picking it's teeth, lurking. In my heart, you see, I knew I could live here. I didn't want to leave, or be left, either.</i>
Where did Sammy come from? Details of his life before Tomato Red took over are sketchy. He tells Jamalee, "My mom left town just before I was born" and when Jamalee cajoles him to say something good about his own mother he says, "She's not around anymore. That's a good thing." He gives us a barely a glimpse of the small Arkansas town he came from and lets us guess at the horrors there and its ultimate disappointment for him: There was no bunch there that would have him. So Sammy amputates his past like a diseased limb and lives in the present and in his quest for home, a place and people to belong to. He doesn't want to anticipate the frightening future. He's not going anywhere in particular and he knows it. He vaguely envisions ending up in prison but isn't overly concerned by the thought. Maybe that's the last ditch resort to a place to belong.
The Merridew family of Venus Holler, through a warped sequence of events, take Sammy in. Ambitious Jamalee, aka Tomato Red, threatens to steal Sammy's heart but shows little in the way of a heart to offer in return. Her beautiful brother, Jason, seems to be the only thing Jamalee is capable of loving, and even Jason is fodder for her ambition. Jamalee, the sister, flawed beyond redemption and Jason, tragically beautiful, play out their roles in the town that assigned them their fate the day they were born, and in the end, we see it could have ended no other way.
I know I must have read a book as beautifully written as Tomato Red, and I have read books with more satisfying plots and climaxes, but just now in the afterglow of this little treasure, I can't remember what they were. This is a small book packed full of prose that flows, descriptions of feelings I've sensed and been unable to articulate, and emotions so strong they grabbed me by the throat and refused to let go. It's one of the few books I'm destined to read again and again, sighing all the while, "Lord, I wish I'd written that."
I sensed the ending and was not disappointed or surprised. Woodrell remained true to his characters and let them play their drama out to the end without obtrusive interferrence. This, my friends, is a perfect example of what the wise ones tell those of us who write: Be true to the characters and let them be true to themselves.