Exposing the truth behind the American dream

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Ride with the Devil by Daniel Woodrell (No Exit Press, £6.99)

Ride with the Devil by Daniel Woodrell (No Exit Press, £6.99)

Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell (No Exit Press, £10)

At a time when the two dominant strands of male American fiction to emerge in the last couple of decades - contemporary noir and dirty realism - have largely lapsed into self-parody, a writer from the Ozark mountains of Missouri has come along to resuscitate them both.

Certainly, Daniel Woodrell is well placed to straddle both these camps. He is a veteran of the creative writing school in Iowa, Alma Mater of any number of dirty realists and also of hardboiled writers such as James Crumley and James Lee Burke, and he was a notoriously truculent presence there. On leaving, he rapidly made it into print with his trilogy of crime novels featuring the Shade family, from the mythic Louisiana town of St Bruno.

Unfortunately, a year later James Lee Burke started his own series of Louisiana crime novels, which rather left Woodrell in the... shade.

Even less successful at the time was Woodrell's second novel, the Cormac McCarthy-like western Woe to Live On. Ironically enough, however, it's this work that looks most likely to launch him into the public eye. Ride with the Devil, Ang Lee's film of Woe to Live On (the book has now been reissued with the new title) opens the London Film Festival tonight.

Set in the Ozarks, where the Woodrells have lived since the 1840s, and loosely based on the activities of raiders during the Civil War, the novel is a vivid and deliberately - but never gratuitously - shocking account of the random madness of war.

When neither that book, nor the two Shade thrillers that followed, sold appreciably, Woodrell returned to the Ozarks. It's still something of a poor-white stronghold, and it was here that Woodrell set the extraordinary Give Us a Kiss, a book that he described as "country noir", and which the writer Annie Proulx memorably described as "reaming the language with a dry corncob". This was the story of a failed novelist returning home to hang out with his dope-running brother, a slyly self-referential fiction that also functioned admirably as an off-centre crime novel. The book wrote Woodrell right back into literary contention.

Good though that was, Woodrell's latest novel, Tomato Red, is better. There's no hint of postmodern trickery here; it's a beautifully wrought tale of the ordinary disasters that befall people who start life on the wrong side of the tracks. From the very first line - "You're no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen" - the story grips you, and it never lets go.

One of the main reasons is that it deals with a subject that most American fiction never touches on. For long years it has been a truism to say that the great divide in US life is race - but class remains the great unmentionable. America clings hard to its egalitarian dream. Yet Tomato Red is all about class - about being born to the redneck/hillbilly/white trash existence that qualifies you for nothing except, perhaps, appearing on The Jerry Springer Show.

Sammy Barlach is a failed petty criminal who takes a little too much crack with some lowlifes out by the trailer park and ends up passing out in the mansion that he has just broken into. He wakes up in the company of West Plains' two most dissatisfied citizens, Jason and Jamalee Merridew, the outcast children of the local whore and lifetime residents of a bad neighbourhood by the name of Venus Holler.

As the story unravels, it becomes clear that Barlach is resigned to his fate, and so is Bev the hooker. But 19-year-old pocket redhead Jamalee and her beautiful gay brother Jason believe that there's got to be something more. So Jamalee reads etiquette books and watches movies, while Jason works in the hair salon where the girls all swoon over him; and both of them are planning a better life. Now and then, they break into rich folks' houses so they can accustom themselves to the good life. That's how they happen to run into Sammy, and that's how everything starts to fall apart.

From its farcical beginning to the awful, stupid tragedy of its denouement, this is a flat-out marvellous book. Rooted in the purest noir tradition of the Fifties, it is nevertheless great literary fiction. Like a murder ballad or a prison-yard blues, Tomato Red is written in the kind of vernacular poetry you want to read and learn by heart.