TOMATOES— As banal a subject it might seem, there might be further possibilities of engagement with the tomato besides whether it’s heirloom or not and where to grow it. I’m speaking about its interpretative potential, or of any piece of fruit, in fiction.
There’s a great deal of argument one overhears about the rules of intellect and its proportion to humility in the face of fiction—dare an author put down his slip of sophistication to allow his characters to speak for themselves, using bad grammar or being too sentimental? Yes, he should; otherwise, characters sound cloned, and no one in fiction should be illustrated so solid as a coat of paint— fiction is simply not that flat.
And just as there are as many interpretations of what dawn looks like over the foothills of a remote country as there are of the sea at sunset and the moon and Tokyo and the Danube River, the qualities of any subject take on its own aestheticism, and its multiple meanings, behind its explicit impression, is what makes one drawn to it. Take the waitress who serves you burnt toast and runny eggs ever since you left her a bad tip; it’s not about the burnt toast or the runny eggs but that she serves them because you left her a bad tip. So what of a tomato, a banana, or even pancake batter? I quote Zadie Smith from a discussion she gave in NYC: “Fiction needs intellect, it certainly does, but it can’t survive on intellect alone. It requires all these embarrassing things, things that seem too banal to talk about.”
Joe Henry’s new novel Lime Creek has a chapter in it titled ‘Tomatoes’, following one titled ‘Family’ and preceding another titled ‘Sleep’. These sections are more like vignettes than they are chapters, arranged like a photo album of a family history. The novel is a mere one hundred and fifty pages, and Henry spends a sixth of the novel reflecting on a character’s nostalgia during an episode when his two infant boys, Whitney and Luke, splatter freshly-cleaned bed linens, hung before the mountain ridges of a Wyoming sundown, with red ripe tomatoes. It’s endearing and adorable—”Whitney puts his thumb on the biggest one just to see what it feels like, with Luke leaning over his shoulder. And then to their amazement Whitney’s thumbnail just disappears. They both look at each other with less than an instant of consternation that almost simultaneously burst into peals of rollicking laughter that they nearly fall off their stance.” You are tempted to turn your head at the sentimentality, the playfulness, but with a closer reading you find the psychological nuance in the crafting of this vignette brilliant. It’s not about the infants stealing their mother’s ripe tomatoes and hurling them at her bed linens, smearing them with constellations of tomato seeds, but more about the moment when their father, Spencer, takes them down to the creek with a tin pail to teach them a lesson: Consequence. And after nightfall, when the boys are sleepy-eyed after hours of scrubbing, and have been sent back to the house, when Spencer stands up with a limp that he acquired from a gunshot at war, triggering a memory of his friend Parker whom he’s lost in that same war, does the meaning of this chapter reveal more than its obvious mundanity. The splattered tomatoes—”rosy starlike murals”— become a different image with a different sort of momentum. The temporal travel from two infants to two men, side by side in the midst of war, is essentially a variation on a theme. And it’s not merely the color red that one sees all over the wounded bodies of a past war in the character’s mind but a companionship of these two memories that reveal a kinship: “…that was the first lesson of war. Not the horror, which is its other name. But love. Because knowing you’re about to die, and the person beside you is about to die too, all of what makes you who you are in an instant of fear so intense that it stops your breath and nearly stops your heart too, disappears. And all that is left is love.”
We follow Spencer back to the house where Whitney and Luke are splayed out on their beds, naked and snoring with soiled hands and feet, and we witness this love, this interpretation Henry has arranged between these two infant brothers who have just experienced their own little battle with consequence. Before leaving the boys’ room, Spencer places a piece of notepaper on top of their clothes-bureau, and a five-dollar bill that almost covers the one word that he’s printed in pencil. Tomatoes. The mind of the reader is racing, because it’s simply displayed; the poignancy of this chapter lies in the possibility that Spencer’s two sons might be at war one day, and how does a father cope with the image of them covered in splattered tomatoes? An entire lesson of kinship and loss integrated in the symbolic meanings of a piece of fruit—it isn’t so much intellectualism, merely a possibility in fiction.
—The banality, and wisdom, bleeds into other genres too, because I don’t suggest that fruit engages the emotive renderings of character—it’s not a magic trick (though it could be), not conclusively, anyway.