Landscape of my Childhood
Heather Luby on Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red
In the foreword of Tomato Red, Megan Abbott explained to me that the book would be a “tale of convenience stores and parking lots and mud-rut driveways and tiny homes with bail bondsmen’s phone numbers taped on every refrigerator door.”
But she warned me not to be fooled. That the book would conjure magic, that it would show me radical beauty and longing. She did not lie.
The magic is there, in Woodrell’s language, and it captivated me from the opening sentence. A book laced with lines such as, “Panic put wings on our feet” and other words rearranged in such a way so that they sparked bright and strange on the page.
But it wasn’t simply Woodrell’s language that seduced me. It was Jamalee, Tomato Red herself, speaking to me through the pages, saying, “You know, that big rotten gap between who I am, and who I want to be, never does quit hurtin’ to stare across.” And I wanted to say to her, or maybe I did say to her, speaking right through my Kindle, ain’t that the truth.
Jamalee dreams of leaving the Ozark Mountains, her home in West Table, Missouri, and finding that proverbial better life. But I found myself wanting to tell Jamalee to be careful what she wished for; to be careful that she didn’t run so far away that she wouldn’t be able to find her way back to herself someday, to the place that shaped her identity, twists and curves, sharp edges and all. I found myself wanting to say to her, Honey, never run so far from your past that you forget who you are and lose the benefit of your own history.
You know, that big rotten gap between who I am and who I want to be, never does quit hurtin’ to stare across.
Maybe I know a little something about that sort of thing. You see, the landscape in Tomato Red is also the landscape of my childhood. I am an Ozarks girl; I was raised in a place where much of nature remains untouched and a single sunset against the backdrop of the hills can conjure a deep reverence for God. Or in the words of Sammy in Tomato Red, “long finger bones of sunlight showed through and played the range of colors like a range of musical notes, making a tune of colors from pink to plum and back to yellow all across the rim of the world.”
In fact, visiting the birthplace of my identity in the pages of Woodrell’s work did work a bit of magic on me, conjuring memories as dark and ephemeral as dancing wisps of smoke. The exact shade of brown shag carpet in my single-wide trailer, the feel of clay-stained rocks in my front yard pushing into the bottom of my bare feet, the sounds heard from the bedroom window of my granny’s house late at night–sounds of train whistles and solitary cars humming around the corner and fading away. Fragments, momentary sensations, simple sensory ghosts, but nothing hearty is left of my roots. Not really. And not even Woodrell’s magic can change that now.
A passing train cast its spell, put us on hold where we stood, took time from our lives and ate it. The spell was long, loud, welcome.
I sometimes have this dream, this scenario, where I meet my childhood self and she doesn’t recognize me and I can’t convince her that I am who she will become. I don’t like this dream. I wanted to warn Jamalee of this kind of dream in her future.
But I should you warn you, dear reader, that there is something seductive and dangerous in consuming such hungry, desperate fiction. The kind that makes you wish you could talk to the characters inhabiting the page, guide them, scream at them, and weep with them. And Tomato Red is no exception. This rare breed of rich atmospheric fiction can lure you so deep into a fictive world, so completely and convincingly, that you will begin to not only sympathize with the characters but empathize with them as well. You begin to believe you are the character or the character is you. This immersion has a way of eating up your loneliness and giving your pain a framework.
Maybe I didn’t believe myself to be exactly like Jamalee during my time inside the book. But the fictive world made me believe too urgently that I could have been her growing up, or her best friend, or more likely in the Ozarks, her cousin. And to daydream that maybe Jamalee really did run away from West Table, Missouri, and maybe she is a stay-at-home mom somewhere in the suburbs right now, reading a book about a world that seems distantly familiar and unexplainably relevant.
Long finger bones of sunlight showed through and played the range of colors like a range of musical notes, making a tune of colors from pink to plum and back to yellow all across the rim of the world.
But if I am honest, I’m really nothing like Jamalee or her best friend or her cousin. Two weeks’ distance from the book and I’ve sufficiently recovered from the dream world created by Woodrell, and I can see that my empathy with Jamalee was false and self-serving. We share a setting, but not an outcome. I was poor growing up in the Ozarks, at least by some outsiders’ standards, but I was never called trash (not to my face anyhow). My mom and dad both had respect and a work ethic and I never knew the kind of desperation and longing that Woodrell’s characters so powerfully possess. I graduated high school, I moved, I began a life far enough away from home that I didn’t have to be defined by the roads and valleys traveled in my youth. What I have forgotten of my past, of my Ozarks roots, has more to do with time and distance than any motivation worthy of literary legacy. Though I might wish sometimes, as I’m sure many do, that I had such a legacy. I’m sure that many people, writers and readers alike, have been tempted by the fiction around them to create a mythology for their lives, a past to give them future purpose. Who wouldn’t make themselves the hero if they could rewrite their own story?
But we can’t rewrite our own histories. Even as writers, we cannot create for ourselves a different identity, different origins than the ones that have already been written in time. Truly good fiction can tempt us into such misbeliefs, and that is in part a source of their beautiful and mysterious magic.
In the words of Sammy Barlach, the doomed antihero of Tomato Red, “Everybody among us on earth has their own cherished horse–feathers that they try and try and try to believe in.”
This essay first appeared in these pages in 2010 as “Mud-rut Magic in the Ozarks.”
Heather Luby is really nothing other than than a girl from the Ozark Mountains who grew up with dreams of writing stories. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, LITnIMAGE, WIPs, Bartleby Snopes, Emerge Literary Journal, Halfway Down the Stairs, and other places. She holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and is the author of a novel, Laws of Motion. When not conversing with the characters of her imagination, she can be found wrangling two willful and beautiful daughters around the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri.