Lunch Pumphrey, Skeets Benvenuti and a Gang of Other Vicious Tush Hogs

Christopher Tayler

  • Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell
    No Exit, 225 pp, £10.00, March 1999, ISBN 0 19 019822 2

In the rich American vocabulary of abuse for the white rural poor, hicks and hayseeds connote ignorance but also innocence. The Hill-billie of Mathews’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1900) is a cheerful enough character ‘who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him’. The stereotype is still more comic than threatening. The word redneck, on the other hand, is, variously, ‘a derog. term for a country dweller, a peasant, esp. a southern US poor farmer who is stupid and racist’, a ‘bigoted and conventional person; a loutish ultraconservative’ and – most hurtfully – ‘a Southern rural white; hence, a reactionary’. The urbanised descendants of these people are ‘trailer park trash’ – badly dressed, illiterate, their obesity commensurate with their appetites for junk food and generic beer – a near-universal formula for the undeserving poor.

Such images have their uses. For example, they allow Americans to admit that racism exists in the US, but to limit it to a few rustic clowns in inbred Southern backwaters: there are no prejudiced, loutish ultra-conservatives north of the Mason-Dixon line (and certainly none in Washington). But the caricatures are affected, too. In Power and Powerlessness, his 1980 study of quiescence and rebellion among Appalachian ‘mountaineers’, John Gaventa noted that where ‘a positive self-image is not portrayed for a particular group, that group may develop a sense of inadequacy about itself, reinforced by how other groups project their media stereotypes on them’ – and he isn’t talking about anything more sinister than the Beverly Hillbillies. Or, in the words of the narrator of Tomato Red – himself variously but emphatically described by his acquaintance as ‘ignorant white-trash scum’, an ‘alcoholic redneck’ and a ‘punk-ass canteen turnout motherfucker’ – it ‘makes you want to discriminate against yourself, basically’.

Not that Daniel Woodrell is averse to the odd stereotype himself. Take Dean Pugh, a ‘daffy’ white-trash gangster in Muscle for the Wing: ‘junk-food raised and opposed to dentistry’, he feels compelled to explain after a murder that he ‘hated killin’ a white guy’. And then there’s Lunch Pumphrey, the vengeful shootist of The Ones You Do, so-called because ‘if he had a chance to he’d eat yours for you.’ A methodically brutal redneck assassin, Lunch is given to solacing himself with cocaine and whiskey before enacting Blue Velvet-style scenes – inspired by an incestuous obsession with his sister – on unsuspecting prostitutes and other terrified victims (‘Granny’s asleep and Aunt Edna won’t hear us’).

‘Genes will tell,’ a character says early on in his first novel, Under the Bright Lights, and this has become a recurring theme. Doyle Redmond, the narrator of Give Us a Kiss, finds that ancestral voices give pep talks in his head: ‘Forget the modern world, forget what century this is – some stuff runs deeper than that.’ His fate, he feels, is written in the ancient clutter of his grandfather’s home, where ‘the seeds of all to come’ are ‘maintained in relic form’. Lunch Pumphrey experiences his murders as a primitive form of acquiescence to the life cycle.

Jewel Cobb, a hillbilly hitman, even has an antique haircut lovingly sculpted with ‘atavistic comb-work’. Ineluctable genetic inheritances are at work. (In Under the Bright Lights there’s a reference – myth turning history into nature – to the ‘Urban Darwinism’ of the flophouses, where ‘the mean got over with their no-limit rage, while the weak went under, silently.’) When violence comes in Give Us a Kiss, it has a hillbilly heritage: blood and instinct point to retribution, as if the blood-soaked Confederate bushwhackers of Woodrell’s historical novel Woe to Live on were stirring in their graves. The ‘urge to just start smashing amuck’ is ‘always there’ in the present novel and it is firmly linked to simmering social resentments: Tomato Red moves beyond the more florid stereotypes of Southern literature and tries to do for the trailer park what Walter Mosley has done for the ghettos and suburbs of LA.

Sammy Barlach, the narrator, is a young man from Arkansas with ‘that “born to lose and lose violently” air about him’. Adrift in the Ozark town of West Table, Missouri, he has little past to speak of and less of a future. Despite his faults, he is engaging: a gangling, troubled, well-meaning, expressively drawling Southerner of the type often played by Nicolas Cage. During an incompetent, speed-and-tequila-fuelled burglary of a mansion up a ‘hepatitis-yellow’ brick road, he encounters a pair of brother and sister teenage housebreakers who offer to take him on as ‘security’. Having lost his job and room, he takes up their offer. Jamalee, the older sibling, is resentful, impulsive, and desperate for an escape to better things. Hers is the tomato-red hair – ‘that eye-catching, burnt-red colour’, another of Woodrell’s books puts it, ‘that spelled trouble in pulp paperbacks’. Her younger brother Jason is a preternaturally attractive apprentice hairdresser, ‘the kind of fella that if he was to make it to the top based only on his looks, you’d still have to say he deserved it’; ‘grown women at the grocery store toss him their panties with their home phone numbers marked on in lipstick.’ Next door lives their mother Bev, a prostitute whose low expectations are such that, gripped by youthful Beatlemania, she set her sights on Ringo.

Jamalee’s plan, such as it is, involves setting Jason up as a gigolo ‘someplace in the high cotton, where folks spent money just so they didn’t have to carry it around anymore, and the rich ladies got snickered at if they didn’t have a beautiful boy “escort” that they were seen everywhere with’. Jason, being gay, is unsuited to the task. Sammy, in any case, hangs around, falling in love with the unresponsive Jamalee and bedding her mother instead. They form a kind of family, Sammy’s greatest desire being simply to belong. Humiliated by the local bourgeoisie when Jamalee applies for a job at the country club, they unleash a herd of pigs across a pristine golfcourse. When Jason is found drowned a few days later, Sammy, Bev and Jamalee set out to expose the murderers and avenge his death. Except – and this isn’t giving too much away – they don’t.

Advertising its genre as ‘country noir’, Tomato Red keeps up a creditable impersonation of a thriller. Bev’s dubious past furnishes plenty of suspects to choose from – among them, a vanished gangster called Skeets Benvenuti and the Timlinsons, a gang of ‘vicious tush hogs’. One-sentence paragraphs and Chandlerian similes abound: mist seeps in through an open window ‘like a rubbernecking crowd peeking in on a private moment’ and Sammy is enveloped by an enormous chair ‘like a French-tickler in a gentleman’s leather wallet’. Ultimately, however, the novel is overwhelmed by its concern with the hopelessness of the protagonists’ situation. Woodrell is far more interested in describing their depressing ‘ramble through sincere poverty and various spellbinding mishaps’ than in exposing the moustachio-twirling villainy – ‘you people are the lowest scum in town’ – of their country-club oppressors. ‘Continual defeat,’ John Gaventa observes, ‘gives rise not only to the conscious deferral of action, but also’ – as you’d expect – ‘to a sense of defeat, or a sense of powerlessness’; and in numerous rants, Tomato Red strives to demonstrate how this works. ‘The school here had designated us for the scrap heap,’ Jamalee complains. ‘The heap that hangs out in crummy bars and does minimum-wage spot work.’ ‘It’s no use,’ says Sammy, ‘to squawk against these wrong laws – they’ve already won, baby, whether you slept through it or not’ Or again, this time proleptically:

You know, the regular well-to-do world should relax about us types. Us lower sorts. You can never mount a true war of us against the rich ’cause the rich can always hire us to kill each other. Which they and us have done plenty, and with brutal dumb glee. Just toss a five-dollar bill in the mud and sip wine and watch our bodies flyin’ about, crashing headfirst into blunt objects, and our teeth sprinkle from our mouths, and the blood gets flowing in such amusing ways.

Most of Woodrell’s books cast a cold eye on the ‘anarcho-capitalism of the street daffies’ and their ‘red-eyed alert for that much ballyhooed trickledown of wealth’. And while Tomato Red finds little use for the small brushes in painting this particular picture, and even starts to hector at times, it does at least provide a spirited counterblast to the endemic Horatio Algerism of such books as, say, Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. (There is only one character in Daniel Woodrell’s work who considers himself ‘to embody the Horatio Alger myth’: the splendidly named Shuggie Zeck in Muscle for the Wing, a wife-beating gangster who ends up dead.)

Woodrell’s novels veer disconcertingly, clumsily, sometimes brilliantly, between burlesquing the genres they ostensibly inhabit and investing them with an unexpected authenticity. In his early bayou thrillers, the trading of crime-scene wisecracks between the maverick cop and his lardy partner becomes so vigorous that many sentences read like parodies: ‘Jadick smoothly sucked off half a can of brew,’ for example, or ‘the whore began to pick her fingers through the killer’s hair.’ (Sour mash whiskey has an even more fetishistic importance in Woodrell’s writing than 100 Pipers rotgut in Stewart Home’s.) Yet the books invoke a spirit of place – ‘north of the French Triangle but south of the Mason-Dixon’ in the mythical city of St Bruno – and have an abiding interest in the relationship between family, society and personality. In The Ones You Do, which caps a loose crime trilogy and is perhaps Woodrell’s most accomplished novel, the caper elements are subordinated to a sideways-moving series of vignettes about fathers, sons and daughters, family and local history. Give Us a Kiss combines satire on literary life with a story of hillbilly feuding; Woe to Live on inflects its Civil War skirmishes with post-Vietnam anomie. Woodrell is strong on eccentric characters and situations: a bar-room brawl between elderly rivals in which one removes his dentures before planting the first blow; three generations of women bonding on a Sunday-morning snake-hunt. Atmosphere, incidental comedy, energy and descriptive energy are more important than the sometimes desultory plotting or the strained thematics.

Short-circuiting genre with social indignation, Tomato Red sets up its premises at a ferocious pace and then becomes static, settling into the dulled rhythms of lives becalmed by poverty. By what would be the middle of the second act in a conventional thriller – the period of decision-making after Jason’s murder – the exposition becomes dilatory, and the investigation slows down into a series of tableaux: underclass protagonists ostentatiously alienated by civic celebrations, or poking around in a ruined house filled with ‘generations of trash’. The book makes its point by forcing the reader to echo the narrator’s frustration – which doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Somehow, however, it remains extraordinarily readable: with Sammy’s falteringly lyrical descriptions (‘big blue above and runny-butter hot with a sporty breeze shooing tender smells on by’; ‘the sunset depicted pink fingers raking a general blue’) and controlled awkwardness of register (he tries some wine ‘of the Chablis category’), Tomato Red both showcases and consolidates Woodrell’s casual mastery of his idioms.