Mosley, Walter (Vol. 184)
Walter Mosley 1952-
American novelist, short story writer, editor, memoirist, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Mosley's career through 2004. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 97.
Mosley emerged during the 1990s as one of the foremost crime and detective fiction writers of his generation. His first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), achieved immediate popular success as well as critical acclaim. His private-eye hero Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins has appeared in seven novels that follow Easy's development from a teenager in south Texas during the 1930s to his uneasy success as a homeowner and family man in the African American community of post-World War II Los Angeles. Easy Rawlins has been favorably compared to the protagonists of the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and Mosley has been widely regarded as a rightful heir to African American crime writer Chester Himes. Mosley's literary reputation expanded in the early 1990s with the successful 1995 screen adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress and the acknowledgement by U.S. President Bill Clinton that Mosley was among his favorite authors.
Born in 1952 to a white Jewish mother and an African American father, Mosley was raised in South-Central Los Angeles, California. He graduated from high school in 1970 and enrolled in Goddard College in Vermont. He later earned a B.A. in political science from Johnson State College in 1977. Soon after graduating, Mosley moved to Boston, where he met and married Joy Kellman, a dancer and choreographer. Mosley moved to New York in 1982, where he worked as a computer programmer and began attending creative writing courses at the City College of New York. In 1989 he showed his manuscript of Devil in a Blue Dress to his writing teacher Frederic Tuten, who sent the novel to a literary agent. The agent soon arranged for the publication of Mosley's novel, and the commercial success of Devil in a Blue Dress allowed Mosley to support himself as a full-time writer. His three successive novels after Devil in a Blue Dress broadened Mosley's following and reputation, bringing him nominations for fiction awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the Private Eye Writers of America, and Britain's Crime Writers' Association. Developed for young urban residents, Mosley founded the City University of New York (CUNY) publishing degree program, the only such program in the country. Mosley has served on the board of directors of the National Book Awards, the Poetry Society of America, and TransAfrica as well as once serving as the president of the Mystery Writers of America.
Mosley is best known for his mystery series featuring private detective “Easy” Rawlins and his violent though loyal friend, Raymond Alexander, better known as “Mouse.” The first novel in the series, Devil in a Blue Dress, is set in Los Angeles in 1948. Rawlins, a veteran of World War II, loses his job at a factory and is hired to track down a white woman known to frequent jazz clubs. Taking the job purely out of financial necessity, Easy is soon drawn into the complex and morally ambiguous underworld of L.A.'s African American community. As he struggles to locate the mystery woman, Easy repeatedly calls on his friend Mouse—a reputed ex-convict with a ruthless temper—to serve as a confidant, sidekick, and enforcer. Set in 1953 against the backdrop of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy's communist witch-hunts, A Red Death (1991) finds Easy in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service for accepting $10,000 in untaxed payment for his detective services in Devil in a Blue Dress. Government agents coerce Easy into working for the FBI to spy on a union organizer suspected of being a communist. In White Butterfly (1992), set in the late 1950s, Easy has settled into a comfortable full-time job as a janitor at a public high school and is enjoying a quiet domestic life with his wife and a new baby. His relative newfound stability is disrupted when he is hired by the police to investigate the serial murders of several young women, one of whom is a white college coed who led a double life as an exotic dancer. Mouse is one of the key suspects in the police investigation, and Easy primarily becomes involved in an effort to aid his friend. The fourth novel, Black Betty (1994) takes place in the early 1960s and concerns Easy's search for a woman known as Black Betty, whom he knew during his youth back in Texas. Easy helps a woman to escape her abusive husband in A Little Yellow Dog (1996) and, as a result, ends up becoming the owner of a yellow dog named Pharaoh. The novel, set in 1963, concludes with two notable deaths—the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the apparent death of Mouse, who lapses into a coma after being shot. In the conclusion, Mouse's wife, Etta Mae, carries his body out of the hospital, and it remains ambiguous if Mouse truly has died. Gone Fishin' (1997), a prequel to the Rawlins series, takes readers back to 1939, when a nineteen-year-old Easy and Mouse left their childhood home in south Texas and became embroiled in a murder. Marking Mosley's return to the Easy Rawlins series after a five-year hiatus, Bad Boy Brawly Brown (2002), is set during the Civil Rights era, taking Easy on a tempestuous journey through the underworld of black political radicalism in his search for the missing son of a friend.
In addition to Easy Rawlins, Mosley has introduced several other engaging African American protagonists to his fictional repertoire. The 1995 novel R. L.'s Dream moves away from Mosley's traditional post-World War II mysteries, instead setting its narrative in New York City during the 1980s. The plot follows a down-on-his-luck blues musician, known as Atwater “Soupspoon” Wise, who is rescued from the streets by a white woman who takes him into her home. Soupspoon's dream is to one day play with his idol, the real-life legendary blues musician Robert “R. L.” Johnson. Mosley's short story cycle Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1998) features the character Socrates Fortlow, recently released from prison after serving a long sentence on charges of rape and double-homicide. Fortlow becomes a part of the African American community of Watts, Los Angeles, where he attempts to redeem himself by helping his friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, while doing his best to survive his own rough life on a day-to-day basis. True to his name, Socrates Fortlow is a street-smart philosopher, grappling with the complex question of how to live a moral life in an imperfect world. Fortlow appears again as the protagonist in Walkin' the Dog (1999), described variously as a novel or short story cycle, in which he organizes his community in protest against police brutality. Mosley returned to the genre of historical crime fiction with Fearless Jones (2001), set in the Watts district of Los Angeles during the 1950s. The novel introduces a new pair of reluctant detective heroes in the persons of Fearless Jones and Paris Minton. Paris, a used-bookstore owner, is drawn into a world of crime and intrigue as he investigates the disappearance of a mysterious woman. Similar to Easy Rawlins' relationship with Mouse, Paris enlists his friend Fearless, an uncompromising ex-soldier, to assist him in his quest. Mosley revisited the 1950s Los Angeles of Fearless Jones in Fear Itself (2003), in which Fearless convinces Paris to help him look for a missing woman, Kit Mitchell. Their investigation leads them into a convoluted web of schemes involving an emerald pendant, the missing woman, a family diary, murder, and corruption.
A marked departure from Mosley's previous works, Blue Light (1998) has been variously interpreted as a science fiction allegory or parable. Set in the San Francisco Bay area during the 1960s, a group of people are affected by a mysterious blue light emanating from the sky. The light physically transforms anyone that comes into contact with it, changing them into superhuman versions of their past selves. The affected individuals—known collectively as “the Blues”—form a special community that is challenged with a battle against evil. In 2004 Mosley published The Man in My Basement, which also differs significantly from his past detective fiction. The novel focuses on Charles Blakey, an African American man descended from 17th-century American freed slaves, and Anniston Bennet, a mysterious white man who shows up on Blakey's doorstep in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Bennett has come to ask Blakey if he can live in the basement of Blakey's home, which has been owned by the Blakey family for two hundred years. Blakey reluctantly accepts the offer, and the philosophical novel utilizes the ongoing debates that occur between the two characters as a tool to examine a variety of social and racial issues. In addition to his fictional works, Mosley has also published two works of polemical nonfiction—Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History (2000) and What Next: A Memoir toward World Peace (2003)—which both focus on social, political, and cultural issues relevant to modern African Americans.
Mosley has attracted both a large popular audience and critical acclaim for his crime and detective novels. He has been celebrated for effectively working within the tradition of hard-boiled detective fiction while expanding the themes and settings of the genre to address issues of history, community, and the overall African American experience. His portrayals of the post-World War II African American community and the Civil Rights era have been particularly praised as intricate representations of important periods in American cultural history. Scholars have also lauded Mosley's emphasis on creating complex and appealing black male protagonists. Several reviewers have commended Mosley for consistently presenting morally ambiguous worlds in his fiction, while also keeping a firm focus on the daily struggles—personal, financial, and cultural—of his primary characters. Though Mosley's Easy Rawlins series has received a generally warm reception from audiences, Blue Light has been met with decidedly mixed, and often negative, critical assessments. Many commentators have argued that the novel is overly esoteric and violent, asserting that the text unsuccessfully attempts to abandon Mosley's previous prose style. Others have countered these claims and noted that the novel reads as an ambitious allegory of modern times.
Devil in a Blue Dress (novel) 1990
A Red Death (novel) 1991
White Butterfly (novel) 1992
Black Betty (novel) 1994
R. L.'s Dream (novel) 1995
A Little Yellow Dog (novel) 1996
Gone Fishin': An Easy Rawlins Novel (novel) 1997
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned: The Socrates Fortlow Stories (short stories) 1998
Blue Light (novel) 1998
Black Genius: African American Solutions to African American Problems [co-editor and author of introduction] (essays) 1999
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Robert Crooks (essay date October 1995)
SOURCE: Crooks, Robert. “From the Far Side of the Urban Frontier: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley.” College Literature 22, no. 3 (October 1995): 68-90.
[In the following essay, Crooks examines the crime fiction of Mosley and Chester Himes, applying ideas about the American frontier myth to each author's representations of race.]
WESTERN FRONTIER AND URBAN FRONTIER
They draw a line and say for you to stay on your side of the line. They don't care if there's no bread over on your side. They don't care if you die. And … when you try to come from behind your line they kill you....
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Andrea Stuart (review date 13 October 1995)
SOURCE: Stuart, Andrea. “Low Life, High Art.” New Statesman and Society 8, no. 374 (13 October 1995): 33.
[In the following review of R. L.'s Dream, Stuart praises Mosley for his clearly drawn characters and his lyrical prose which resembles the rhythms of blues music.]
Being nominated as President Clinton's favourite author doesn't seem to have hurt Walter Mosley's career. In fact, with the publication of this new novel and the film version of Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel Washington, opening to rave reviews in the U.S., it would be fair to say that right now Mosley is—as the saying goes—“shitting gold”. One of a small number of...
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Dick Adler (review date 14 July 1996)
SOURCE: Adler, Dick. “Easy Rawlins: Color Him Older, Wiser and in Trouble Again.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (14 July 1996): 2.
[In the following review of A Little Yellow Dog, Adler asserts that the strength of Mosley's Easy Rawlins novels lies in their depiction of the African American community in post-World War II Los Angeles.]
Of all the many fine things in the five mystery novels that Walter Mosley has written featuring Easy Rawlins—the richness and depth of the characters, the constantly tightening fist of the stories, the way the violence and death are so surprising and so inevitable—the one that really puts the glow of greatness on the series...
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Dick Lochte (review date 2 February 1997)
SOURCE: Lochte, Dick. “Easy's Epiphany.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 February 1997): 10.
[In the following review, Lochte comments that Gone Fishin' lacks many of the strengths of the previous novels in Mosley's Easy Rawlins series.]
One of the unique aspects of Walter Mosley's mystery novels is that they are presented as time-hopping memoirs narrated by their protagonist, a wily and philosophic African American of seventy-something years named Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. Each book focuses on a different period in Easy's eventful life, but one memory continues to reverberate throughout all of them.
Early in the author's first published...
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Thomas Curwen (review date 9 November 1997)
SOURCE: Curwen, Thomas. “Black and Blue.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 November 1997): 9.
[In the following review, Curwen observes that the unifying themes of the short stories in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned are how the concept of invisibility and blues music relate to the modern African American experience.]
Fats Waller had just gotten out of jail in 1929 for alimony arrears when he penned the haunting melody to “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue,” and Louis Armstrong sang his version of the song so painfully that Ralph Ellison heard it in 1947 when he wrote Invisible Man. Fifty years later, invisibility and the blues still...
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Lucretia Stewart (review date 25 October 1998)
SOURCE: Stewart, Lucretia. “Lit Lite.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 October 1998): 9.
[In the following review, Stewart comments that Mosley's experiment with speculative fiction in Blue Light will be a disappointment for readers who enjoy Mosley's crime novels.]
Imagine that you have tickets for a concert given by one of your all-time great rock idols—Bob Dylan, say, or Bruce Springsteen. You've been waiting for weeks to hear Bob—or Bruce—play one of your favorite numbers, one of his seminal songs: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” perhaps, or “Born in the U.S.A.” Instead, the great man comes on and announces that recently he has been very influenced...
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Mike Phillips (review date 9 April 1999)
SOURCE: Phillips, Mike. “Novel of the Week.” New Statesman 129, no. 4431 (9 April 1999): 50.
[In the following review, Phillips argues that Blue Light is ultimately an unsuccessful attempt by Mosley to break away from the expectations readers have developed of him as an African American crime writer.]
When novelists run out of steam they invariably turn to allegorical science fiction. Sometimes they play with crime fiction, but it is, in its way, too demanding as a genre for exhausted writers, and they usually end up rendering the mystery element as an “interesting” subplot, designed to display their technical versatility. In Blue Light it is hard...
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D. J. Taylor (review date 8 May 1999)
SOURCE: Taylor, D. J. “Weirdness, Whimsy and Mayhem.” Spectator 282, no. 8909 (8 May 1999): 35.
[In the following review, Taylor characterizes Blue Light as a transitional novel, noting that “the spectacle of the writer trying to work out what he wants to write about can be glimpsed from one sinewy sentence to the next.”]
One of the funniest moments in Evelyn Waugh's Work Suspended finds its detective novelist hero John Plant ensconced in his publisher's office trying to explain a mounting crisis of creative self-belief. Listening to the author of A Death in the Dukeries and other works descanting on the need for technical experiments and...
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Nicola Upson (review date 29 May 2000)
SOURCE: Upson, Nicola. “Crime Waves.” New Statesman 129, no. 4488 (29 May 2000): 57.
[In the following review, Upson compares Walkin' the Dog with Ernest J. Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men, commenting that both works explore “the point at which a stand against brutality and corruption becomes necessary.”]
While crime writers lament the difficulties of maintaining a series character, Walter Mosley has created another expertly drawn hero, better even than his first. With Easy Rawlins, the African-American war veteran and unofficial investigator, Mosley turned the private-eye novel on its head; with Socrates Fortlow, an ex-convict forced to define...
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Amy Alexander (review date July 2000)
SOURCE: Alexander, Amy. Review of Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History, by Walter Mosley. Black Issues Book Review 2, no. 4 (July 2000): 52.
[In the following review, Alexander compares Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History with David J. Dent's In Search of Black America, arguing that Mosley's work has a more “courageous” and refined thematic focus.]
All along, we knew that Walter Mosley was deep. Now, with the publication of Workin' on the Chain Gang, we know that he is courageous, too. Published as part of the Library of Contemporary Thought's series on “provocative issues,”...
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Helen Lock (essay date spring 2001)
SOURCE: Lock, Helen. “Invisible Detection: The Case of Walter Mosley.” MELUS 26, no. 1 (spring 2001): 77-89.
[In the following essay, Lock asserts that Mosley draws upon the literary genre of hard-boiled detective fiction to express issues particular to the contemporary urban African American experience.]
In the years since Chester Himes's success in the 1950s and 60s, there has been a comparative dearth of African American detective fiction. The genre was once perceived by African Americans as trivial or, given its primarily white focus, irrelevant. Recently, however, the tide has turned, as writers have started to emerge who have glimpsed, not only the...
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David L. Smith (essay date spring 2001)
SOURCE: Smith, David L. “Walter Mosley's Blue Light: (Double Consciousness) squared.” Extrapolation 42, no. 1 (spring 2001): 7-26.
[In the following essay, Smith discusses Blue Light in terms of the intersection of transcendental thought and the African American experience, arguing that Blue Light's lukewarm critical reception was a result of reviewers not recognizing the work as “a novel of ideas.”]
In a pre-publication blurb for the first edition of Walter Mosley's Blue Light, Jonathan Lethem characterized the novel as a piece of “urban transcendentalism” (dust jacket). It's hard to tell how seriously this was intended—Lethem went on to imagine the book with a soundtrack by George Clinton. Nevertheless, with just a little refocusing, the phrase provides a reliable guide to the book's deepest themes. For “transcendentalism,” we can read “Transcendentalism”: a specific vision of human nature, human possibilities, and human limitations with roots in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Urban,” in turn, should be read according to the current lexicon of racial code words as “black,” pointing to the book's specifically African American take on how human possibilities get limited.
I propose to take these suggestions seriously, and to show in the process how Mosley's novel stands in relation to two of the strongest traditions in American writing. On the one hand, Mosley echoes the spiritual vision of Transcendentalism, with its particular approach to the possibilities of human development and the ironies of fulfillment. On the other, he participates in an African American tradition of reflection on human potential and its pitfalls—a tradition that intensifies Transcendental irony and grounds it in social experience. The achievement of Blue Light is the way it brings these visions into conversation, working at once as a speculative novel about the human spirit and as a novel about race, allowing each line of thought to deepen and comment on the other.
As we shall see, by thus placing racial realism against a wider horizon of spiritual aspiration, Mosley's work recalls some of the later reflections of James Baldwin, who developed his own version of “urban transcendentalism” by way of Harlem Pentecostalism. As Baldwin wrote in his 1984 introduction to a reprint of Notes of a Native Son, “My inheritance was particular, specifically limited and limiting; my birthright was vast, connecting me to all that lives, and to everyone, forever. But one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance” (Collected Essays 810). First, that is, there is a horizon of infinite possibility that requires cosmic rhetoric to do it justice (the sense of eternal connection to “all that lives”); but then there is history, the “inheritance,” the particular conditions of life in the body, in time and place. The two would seem to exclude each other, to cancel each other out. And yet, the deeper realization is that they are interrelated. There is no birthright apart from the inheritance—no Life apart from the particular life that at once nurtures and undermines our desire for something more. The dilemma is one discovered in various ways by writers working the vein of Transcendentalist spirituality and by writers working the territory of race. Mosley, in Blue Light, is doing both at once, with results that repay careful attention.
By taking Blue Light seriously as a novel of ideas, I also hope to clear the air of some of the disparagement cast by its early journalistic reviewers. Blue Light was a radical departure from Mosley's popular work in the detective genre, and so it drew fire from critics who had come to rely on Mosley for a kind of predictable African American “realism”—tours of street life “giving white people glimpses of black life we rarely could otherwise see” (Prager).1 Mosley's turn to science fiction broke free from these expectations, and it was motivated by his desire to do precisely that.2 He has often said in interviews and published essays that as long as black writers perform their assigned task as tour guides through black neighborhoods, they never get beyond a world defined by white interests. They “end up writing about racism, and that means they end up writing about White people” (Whetstone 106). Science fiction, however, allows black authors to break out of this box—to entertain “possibility, alternative lives and even revenge,” and thus to “shout down the realism imprisoning us behind a wall of alienating culture” (“Black to the Future” 32).
The reviewers' pique over Mosley's decision to write a novel of ideas is thus understandable. In a sense, they were right to feel betrayed, because by writing Blue Light. Mosley was quite consciously stepping out of his place. What should bother us more, however, is the reviewers' subsequent refusal to engage with Mosley's ideas. The book's philosophy is brushed off as “New Age posturing” (Judah) or as “generic, acid perceptions of the 60's.” The speeches of its characters are dismissed as “pseudo-sagacities” (Daynard). While Carolyn See in The Washington Post noted a similarity between Mosley's metaphysics and Emerson's, this too was presented as a reason not to take Mosley seriously. (Emerson had already “covered much of the same material.”) As I hope to show, however, this sort of critical impatience does not do Mosley justice. In any case, conclusions about who is “posturing” and whose wisdom is “pseudo” should wait on closer examination of the texts. It is time to stop dwelling on what Blue Light is not and to begin coming to terms more honestly with what it has to say.
The first set of connections I want to explore, then, links Mosley to American Transcendentalism, and to Emerson in particular. The relationship proposed here is not one of direct literary influence. Mosley may have derived some ideas from reading Emerson. He may have come by some of the same ideas indirectly, for as scholars have repeatedly affirmed, Emerson's influence pervades the atmosphere of American letters.3 Then again, Mosley may have found his material in some of the same sources that shaped Emerson himself: the broad currents of religious thought variously called Hermetic, Orphic, Gnostic, Esoteric, Harmonial, Metaphysical, and Perennial.4 Arcane as the labels may sound, such traditions are very much “in the air” of American culture. They represent a way of thinking about nature and human life which, although “alternative” with respect to “official” Biblical models, is actually widely shared.5 In any case, it appears to me that Mosley has been drawn to a vision of the human spiritual condition that is remarkably similar to Emerson's and, moreover, that the two writers have worked out the “logic” of this vision—the paradoxes of its application to life—in strikingly similar ways.
We need to begin with the “blue light” itself—the thing, the event, and the experience that initiates and structures Mosley's story. According to the book's frame-myth, blue light is the organizing principle of all life. More specifically, it is itself a life-form that evolved long ago around a distant star. When its home world cooled and died, this life/energy disseminated itself throughout the universe as packets of light, beams of pure information, a kind of electromagnetic DNA. Wherever the light struck a planet, it organized matter according to the complex musical patterns of the information encoded in it, and life was seeded. Living things, accordingly, echo the structure of the light that engendered them in their own essential nature, or synecdochically in their “blood.”
Once life is seeded it can also receive a fresh impetus from its source. Subsequent beams of light may arrive on planets where life has taken root, now no longer simply at random but drawn by the emerging music of self-organization. Living things that receive the light—seeing or otherwise absorbing it—immediately recognize it as a reminder of their own essential nature and as a call to self-realization. Light comes to the children of light, “like Sunday school in a flashlight,” as one character in the novel remarks (148). Deep calls unto deep, bringing with it an impetus to life's fuller flourishing and a reminder of the cosmic heritage that all life shares—in general, awakening things to become more fully what they already are.6 “We are the seeds,” says Nesta Vine, one of the characters struck by the light, “just seeds waiting for water in order to grow” (149). And the water, in Mosley's story, is light. The arrival of one such shower of revivifying sparks, and the consequent enlightenment of various humans, dogs, insects, fish, and plants in the San Francisco Bay area in August 1965, is what gets Mosley's story off the ground.
This piece of the myth, however, is really only background. A more complete answer to the question “what is blue light?” will have to consider both the later unfolding of the story and the broader connotations of “blue light” as an image. Perhaps a few of the latter are worth noting here. For example, readers of science fiction will immediately see a parallel between Mosley's “blue light” and Philip Dick's “pink light,” the agent of the awakening of “Horselover Fat,” the principal character in Valis, and a symbolic representation of the experiences that led to what Dick called his own spiritual “resurrection.”7 Like blue light, Dick's pink light is a beam of pure information that unlocks buried memories and opens vistas on the meaningfulness of the world. As Fat puts it, “All creation is a language and nothing but a language which for some inexplicable reason we can't read outside and can't hear inside” (Dick 23). Seeing the pink light restores those lost capacities.
The parallel between Dick's light and Mosley's light is so close, in fact, that it mainly serves to call attention to Mosley's decision to make his light blue. The point of that decision—the meaning of “blue” for Mosley—is indicated by several reference points established in his writing. For example, in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, the novel published immediately prior to Blue Light, young Socrates Fortlow recalls a conversation with his aunt about the color of God. God is not white or black, she tells him. “Naw. God's blue. … Blue like the ocean. Blue. Sad and cold and far away like the sky is far and blue. You got to go a long long way to get to God. And even if you get there he might not say a thing. Not a damn thing” (114). Blue, then, is at once an infinite horizon of possibility like the sea or the sky (where the light comes from, “out of the blue”), and also something cold, remote, and inhuman. It attracts our desire, but the fulfillment it gives is sad, ironic, empty.
A bit more far-fetched, but immediately relevant to the world of the book, is the fact that blue was the color of several of the more notorious varieties of LSD circulating in California around the time Mosley's story is set (“blue cheer,” “Owsley blue”).8 Several of the book's main characters are serious users of psychedelics, and insofar as Blue Light can be read as an allegory of the spiritual ferment of the Bay Area in the 1960s, it is certainly true that many people in that time and place were getting their religion “out of the blue.”
Above all, though, “blue” represents the blues, the African American art form that was Mosley's primary subject in his first work of “literary” fiction, R. L.'s Dream. A song by Robert Johnson, the presiding spirit of the earlier novel, is heard on the radio by Blue Light's narrator, Chance, making this connection explicit. “The blue light is my blues, the red light is my mind,” sings Johnson (57-58).9 Moreover, in the jargon of the novel, “the Blues” refers to the people who have seen the light, the people whose lives are most deeply transformed. Blue light communicates the blues by communicating itself. And this, in turn, suggests another connection. If the blues is preeminently the music of black identity and consciousness, then there is also something identifiably “black” about the consciousness imparted by blue light. More precisely, the identity issues that blue light creates when it enters the world of twentieth-century America closely parallel the issues of black Americans coming to consciousness there.
First, however, we need to unpack some of the religious ideas implied in the small part of the book's frame-myth that has already been sketched. In this connection, the story of the origins of blue light makes a fairly straightforward point: the life of every person—of everything living, in fact—is consubstantial with the creative principle of the universe itself, one with the creative impulse that the blue light manifests. Blue light is not the creative force behind the material universe, and so it does not fill the Biblical role of Creator ex niliho. Nevertheless, it is an impulse to life arising directly out of material nature, continuous with it, and by implication, an expression of its inherent potential.
This points to some important differences between Mosley's cosmology and the Biblical model, especially with regard to the relation between human life and the universe. In the Bible, human life derives from God but does not partake directly of His nature. Human nature is at most a reflection or “image” of the divine. Here, however, the Mind that organizes all life in the universe—the Mind that emerges from the self-organizing properties of matter itself—is one with the human mind. We may not fully realize the grandeur of our birthright, but we have the potential to expand our awareness, to incorporate more of the information carried by the light, and so to become one with Mind, God in microcosm. In all this, Mosley's vision shows a clear kinship with Hermetic cosmologies and homegrown American metaphysical movements, from Transcendentalism to New Thought to the New Age. The distinguishing feature of all these groups has been a world-affirming emphasis on continuity between Mind in nature and the human mind, and thus on the potential of each individual to become God.10
Accordingly, while Mosley's novel frequently associates blue light with God, it also explicitly distinguishes the light from the familiar God of the Bible. For example, according to Ordé, the book's philosopher/preacher figure, blue light is “Not God, but life. Not lies or hopes or dreams. Nothing that is to come later, but right now. Right now. Here” (28). When Ordé hears “God,” that is, he hears the connotations of “other” and “beyond” that are carried by the Biblical creation story. “God” is a metaphysically transcendent being to whom we can relate only as something remote. We reach out to such a God through hopes, dreams, and historical expectations, or failing that, as Ordé implies, by building bridges of lies. What the light has revealed to Ordé, however, is an ultimacy that is inherent in our nature, intrinsic to life itself. The completion we yearn for is thus already here, potential within us.
And this, in turn, points to another significant shift in the logic of the book's religious thought. A remote God can be reached only by means of a journey, a quest. Images of spiritual life as a quest have accordingly come to dominate most Western thinking about religion. The more appropriate metaphor for what blue light brings, however, is “awakening”—a sudden or gradual realization of things already present, “Right now. Here.” This point is made with great delicacy in a passage where Chance describes his own partial awakening by reference to a time when he, as a child, first learned to identify certain blurry forms on the horizon as mountains. “All I could make out was ‘far away’ and colors. But as [my mother] kept explaining and pointing, I slowly made out the mountains she described. The elation I felt at realizing mountains for the first time was a weak emotion compared with what Ordé made me feel there in the darkness” (29). The transformation that comes, in other words, is not a matter of new facts being revealed, but of coming to see the world for what it always is. If this truth seems elusive, it is because of its subtlety, its vanishing pervasiveness—not because it involves anything literally hidden or remote. “Ordé's words brought me visions of a place between things. A space that is smaller than an atom but that still encompasses everything in existence” (44).
As already noted, this set of spiritual premises—the oneness of human life and the life of the universe, divine immanence, and metaphysical non-dualism—has many antecedents and possible sources. One of the more proximate for an American writer, however, is Emerson, who has our attention here. For Emerson, as in Mosley's story, spiritual life begins in moments of awakening or insight, in the “few real hours of life” set apart from ordinary consciousness by their intensity, power, and intrinsic authority (Collected Works 1:90). What such moments reveal, however, is not a remote being or an alien will, but the essential divinity or infinitude within us. Such moments, Emerson says, are “divine and deifying.” As soon as he invokes the divine, however, Emerson adds a caveat that anticipates Ordé's “not God, but life.” Through such moments, Emerson writes, “the soul first knows itself. It corrects the capital mistake of the infant man, who seeks to be great by following the great, and hopes to derive advantages from another,—by showing the fountain of all good to be in himself” (1:79).
Moreover, Emerson sometimes places this vision of human potential in a mythic frame that resembles that of Blue Light in important respects. In “Nature,” he tells the story of how Man becomes “a god in ruins … a dwarf of himself. … Once he was permeated and dissolved by spirit. He filled nature with his overflowing currents. … [But now] he no longer fills the veins and veinlets; he is shrunk to a drop. … Yet sometimes he starts in his slumber, and wonders at himself and his house, and muses strangely at the resemblance betwixt him and it” (1:42). According to this tale, that is, humanity was originally one with all things. Human life is universal life. Mysteriously, however, we are now “shrunk” to a state of blinking alienation, a half-life in which we only dimly remember our original relation to the universe. Occasionally, though, there come moments of insight—stirrings of memory or odd flashes of meaning—that alert us to both the tragedy of our diminishment and the possibility of recovery.
It is important to note that Emerson does not represent this cosmological story as his own, but as the gift of a certain “Orphic poet” (1:42). That is, by distancing himself from the account, Emerson shows that he is not committed to the literal particulars of this cosmology, any more than Mosley is committed to the objective truth of his frame myth. What is important about the story. In each case, is what it says about human spiritual potential namely, that our birth right is vast, that our inherent nature unites us with all things, and that our inability to realize this is itself the primary mystery—an absence that entails a possible presence.
Finally, for Emerson, as for the recipients of blue light, awakening brings a sense of the vivid meaningfulness or symbolic character of all things. In “The Poet,” for example, Emerson relates the poet's ability to uncover meaning through metaphor to the Hermetic picture of our kinship with the life of the universe: “The highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or, shall I say, the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact: Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg, and the masters of sculpture, picture, and poetry. For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted” (3:3-4). A talent for metaphor is thus closely related to spiritual awakening. The Poet sees the relations between things—the potential for infinite metaphor—because she has remembered the actual interrelation between herself and all things. “For the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed” (2:37). In the famous formula of “Nature,” then: “The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass” (1:21). Seeing that our life is one with the life of the world will “purge the eyes to understand [nature's] text” (1:23).
In Blue Light, Ordé makes a similar point about coming to see nature as symbolic, using the term “soul” with a distinctively Emersonian twist in the process. For Emerson, Soul is the Unity “within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other” (2:160). Similarly, in Blue Light, soul is “what Ordé had called that energy which binds the tiniest pieces of the universe, that force which seeks to unite and dissimulate” (170). Why “dissimulate?” Because the world understood as soul is a world in which everything is representation. Everything speaks—in however slippery a way—of the Life it manifests. Thus, as Chance notes after receiving his own infusion of blueness: “everything set my senses to translating. That's what Ordé called it. Reading the meaning of myself in the world” (53). The light informs him “like a parchment burning with alien inscriptions, equations, and hieroglyphs” (48). Later, Juan Thrombone, shaman and trickster among the Blues, makes the same point about universal significance using the image of music. “All the world is music, you see. There is music in atoms and music in suns. That is the range of a scale that you can see and read. There is music in emptiness and silence between. Everything is singing all the time, all the time. Singing and calling for what is missing” (216).11 Emerson's poets, like Mosley's Blues, are simply the ones among us who hear and respond to that call.
This, at least, states the ideal. If nothing stood in the way of realizing such transparency and joy, Mosley would have no plot and Emerson might have gone on writing sermons instead of essays. For both writers, however, the plot of spiritual life thickens because light encounters limitation. The infinite clarity which is our birthright is, in practice, balked by the foibles of character and circumstance. We all share one life, but life exists only in particular lives. And individuals have different characters, different histories, different moods, different “blood.” Life, in fact, turns out to be not a simple unity, but a complex of contrary elements, including even death. Awakening, as an intensification of life, thus also intensifies life's inherent tensions and conflicts.
Mosley's story, then, turns on the rather familiar point that people—even illuminated people—are different. While the Blues are all similarly able to decipher the code of creation, they nevertheless turn out to be reading very different “texts.” This is explained by Mosley through a further elaboration of the frame-myth. When the light arrives on earth, it finds people consumed by various passions, involved in various activities or stages of life. And in each case, the light's effect is to elevate the qualities it encounters in people to a kind of heroic intensity. Thus, Claudia Zimmerman, suburban spouse-swapper, caught by the light during a perfunctory act of adultery, becomes Claudia Heart, an archetype of sexual desire and danger on a level with Circe. William Portman—philosophy school drop-out, psychedelic enthusiast and bullshit artist—becomes Ordé, the preacher to the Close Congregation whose “words were the truth” (26). And Horace LaFontaine, caught in the instant of death, becomes Death itself, the Gray Man, devoted to the beauty of negation, the “repose of extinction” (70).12 As Phyllis Yamaguchi, the scientist among the Blues, explains it, the light each creature receives both contains differences and becomes different “because the information in living blood alters each one of us. … Even the way you think is based on the possibility of your blood” (35). The result of the coming of the light, accordingly, is not utopian harmony, but a magnification of the conflicts inherent in our condition. The irony of this situation and its potential for disaster is put well in a statement by Juan Thrombone, which neatly summarizes the book's various meditations on human identity: “You are a song of the gods in the mouth of a fool. You can't help it. So much promise in one so weak attracts disease” (217).
In a similar way, Emerson understood that the effects of awakening are fatally warped by the biases of human nature, and limited by the quirks of character. Insight, according to Emerson, is universally available, at least in principle.13 And yet the mystery is how few people are fully and simply awake. As he had noted already in “Nature,” “most persons do not see the sun”—that is, we do not “really” see it in its full, musical meaningfulness, in its interconnection with all being (Collected Works 1:19). In later writings, he develops an account of this puzzle in terms of temperament, or the warping, biasing effects of individual character. “Exaggeration is in the course of things. Nature sends no creature, no man into the world without adding a small excess of his proper quality. … To every creature nature added a little violence or direction in its proper path, a shove to put it on its way; in every instance, a slight generosity, a drop too much” (3:107). The result of this exaggeration, in turn, is a distortion of perception and an inescapable “partiality” (3:38). We do not see the world as it is, but through “lenses” of subjective circumstance. “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. … It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem. … Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung” (3:30). The effects of this subjective bias in human character are not all negative, of course. Bias can, from another point of view, be understood as a person's vocation or genius.14 And yet every gift is also a limitation, a Fate that detracts from the possible unity of things. Nature “rushes into persons; and when each person, inflamed in a fury of personality, would conquer all things to his poor crotchet, she raises up against him another person” (3:139). This play of biases and partial viewpoints, in Emerson, generates the intellectual drama of his essays. In Mosley, it generates the overt violence of his plot.
The suggestions offered by Mosley and Emerson as to how the limits of bias might be overcome also follow similar lines. In Mosley's story, the possibility of transcending the limits of character is represented by Juan Thrombone. Unlike the other Blues, Juan received multiple illuminations: three bolts from the blue that took him beyond life and negation to a kind of Hegelian synthesis transcending both (118-19).15 Juan, that is, did not receive just one impulse to his character, resulting in the kind of monomania or tyrannous will exhibited by the others. Rather, the additive effect of his illuminations gives him a more inclusive perspective. Thus, Wanita the Dreamer comments on the difference between Juan and the other Blues: “All'a the rest ‘a us just think one thing. … [Juan] do a lotta things” (210).
It is much the same for Emerson. If there is no escaping the limited perspectives of temperament and mood, there is at least the possibility of incorporating multiple perspectives. “The universality being hindered in its primary form, comes in the secondary form of all sides” (Collected Works 3:142). Or as he puts it in a slightly more playful mood, “since we are all so stupid, what benefit that there should be two stupidities” (3:141). The irony of the human condition—born to the promise of power yet fated to the paltry rewards of everyday life—is debilitating at times. There is Life, and then there is the individual life—God's song and the fool who sings it. How can the two be reconciled? The relationship of these two aspects of our nature “appears beforehand monstrous, as each denies and tends to abolish the other” (3:143).
But the irony can be sublated, in effect, by being taken lightly, lived successively, and embraced without fear of contradiction. Significantly for the thesis I am proposing, Emerson calls this state of awareness the “double consciousness.” “One key, one solution to the mysteries of the human condition … exists; the propounding, namely, of the double consciousness. A man must ride alternately on the horses of his private and his public nature, as the equestrians in the circus throw themselves nimbly from horse to horse, or plant one foot on the back of one and the other foot on the back of the other” (6:47).
The lightness and dancing playfulness that Emerson associates with double consciousness is also characteristic of Juan Thrombone. As Chance puts it, the other Blues all “struggled trying to decipher their nature, procreate, and change the world to fit their image. But they rarely laughed or played. … But Juan Thrombone did laugh and play” (245-46). Juan's tendency to speak in riddles and paradoxes is likewise a sign of his comprehensive vision. As Emerson says and Juan seems to acknowledge, “No sentence will hold the whole truth, and the only way in which we can be just, is by giving ourselves the lie” (3:143-44).
Juan thus lives beyond human limitations, even the limits of the heroic humanity represented by the Blues. At the same time, though, as Chance goes on to note, Juan “was more human than the other Blues” (246). He is often distant and uncanny—an idealist who lives Emerson's “noble doubt” about whether the world really exists (Collected Works 1:29), flouting conditions of time and space (201). But he also has a childlike warmth that none of the other Blues exhibit. The others, Ordé in particular, are single-mindedly driven by a sense of mission, and tend to see themselves as Ubermenschen, using humanity as nothing more than raw material for their schemes. At worst, they represent a threat to humanity. As Ordé says to Chance, not all the Blues are to be trusted. “We are not here to answer your prayers. … We are here to prepare the firmament for the unification of all things. … Your desires are meaningless. We only love you if it meets our needs” (45). Even at best, their attitude toward the particularities of human life and history is rather cavalier. When Chance asks Nesta Vine if she is still human, she replies “This body is like a uniform, Chance. I'm like a soldier. I'm proud of the colors and buttons, but they are only vestiges of the spirit that wears them” (171) For Nesta, that is, the universal perspective she has attained makes her particular identity as a black woman relatively expendable. Even Juan displays something of this attitude when he tries to warn off those who have come to him in the woods: “I'm not your momma, little one […]. I'm the Big Bad Wolf and you were just dreaming about your mother” (197).
More typically, however, Juan demonstrates sympathy towards ordinary humanity, and more deeply, an appreciation of the mystery and necessity of incarnation. The light apart from a body, he says, is like blood spilled out on the ground; it is “not a man, can't be, but only a promise without an ear to hear” (216).16 Juan thus represents something more than simple Blueness, as Wanita recognizes. It is his “all sides” ability to see the world as including both promise and limitation—his playful double consciousness—that enables him to overcome the conflicts created by other Blues and, as the novel unfolds, to create the book's closest approach to a realized transcendence in the deep-woods colony called Treaty.
Emerson used the phrase “double consciousness” in praise of a kind of negative capacity, a spiritual suppleness that takes life's ambiguities in stride. When W. E. B. Du Bois used the same phrase some fifty years later, it was to call attention to the pain that unresolved ambiguities can produce.
The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
Du Bois's observation, or the experience from which it grows, establishes another important context for understanding Mosley's work—the “urban” or black dimension of his “urban transcendentalism.” Mosley, that is, is not only an American writer, but a black American writer. The issues that are important to him are the puzzles posed by this situation, even when race is not his ostensible subject. So how do black American concerns, as represented here by Du Bois, relate to the larger spiritual drama of Blue Light?
Du Bois's famous formula focuses attention on the problem of identity. To be black in America is to experience two selves, two centers of gravity, one universal and one particular, neither fully realized and neither quite compatible with the other. On the one hand, there is America with its aspiration to inclusiveness, its dazzling paper promise to accept all comers on the face value of their simple humanity. “America,” in this ideal sense, is more than a national identity, Rather, as Martin Luther King Jr. recognized, it represents a hope that resonates with the Christian dream of the Kingdom of God—a hope for that simple and absolute brotherhood that King liked to call the “Beloved Community” (Cone 58-69). It is a hope that can hardly be denied, perhaps, without killing something in one's own heart. On the other hand, though, there is the actual history of the black race in this country, along with the daily reminders of exclusion and oppression that are its legacy. Double-consciousness, then, is a simultaneous awareness of hope and of that which gives the lie to hope. It encompasses both the self one knows to be one's own—the free and expansive self—and the ragged mess one can expect out of life in time.
As noted above, James Baldwin also comments on this doubleness in a way that is strikingly relevant to our discussion of Mosley. “My inheritance was particular, specifically limited and limiting: my birthright was vast, connecting me to all that lives, and to everyone, forever. But one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance” (Collected Essays 810). The birthright is the Kingdom—that actual/possible unity of all that lives. But the particular life—particularly if one is black—is hemmed in by circumstances that block ones access to the things life promises. Double-consciousness is thus potentiated into a painful cognitive dissonance, or a blatant paradox of loves. Patricia Williams has recently put the matter succinctly: “The color of one's skin is a part of ourselves. It does not matter. It is precious, and yet it must not matter” (37). Double consciousness is the recognition that the things that limit us should not matter in the light of what we know to be inwardly and ultimately true. And yet that inward truth, the universal Self, cannot be grasped without also embracing the limits. The self one discovers oneself to be, as Baldwin put it, is “both limited and boundless, born to die and born to live.” Accordingly, life is lived between hope and despair, between the knowledge that one is perfectly supported, “connected to all that lives,” and the equally clear knowledge that such support, in practice, is not easily distinguishable from abandonment. “One is set free,” says Baldwin, “to live among one's terrors, hour by hour and day by day, alone, and yet never alone” (Price 631).
There are many levels on which Blue Light can be read as a book about race. At times the book's frame-myth becomes a kind of resonating chamber for social reflections. Thus, for example, one of Ordé's early sermons includes a clear spiritual/political double entendre: “You are born dying and so are your children. And even though your leaders claim that you are making advances through the generations, you know in your heart that it isn't true” (24). Ordé's primary meaning has to do with the irrelevance of human “progress” in the light of cosmic evolution. In the background, however, echoes a more familiar observation about the limits of black advancement in modern America: “they tell you it's getting better, but you know it's not true.” The political message is placed in the context of the wider drama of human spiritual development, and the spiritual point is tied, in turn, to concrete historical circumstances. Both levels of meaning are enriched by the juxtaposition.
The richest vein of reflection on race in Blue Light, however, pertains to the dilemmas of double-consciousness introduced above, the tensions between universal human potential and historical inertia, birthright and inheritance. This predicament comes into focus through the characters referred to in the book as “half lights”: people like Chance, the historian; Miles, the detective; Gerrin, the renegade prison warden; and Addie, the mother of Ordé's child. The half-lights have absorbed some of the effects of blue light but have not been fully transformed by it. While they are far more attuned to blue light than are ordinary people, they are not fully one with it. Unlike the full Blues, then, who are “beyond race or species or life, even” (57), the half-lights are representatives and spokespersons for the doubleness of ordinary humanity. Like the rest of us, they are children of light, yet not fully aware of what it means to be alive, not yet fully themselves.
Mosley explores the racial significance of the half-lights' mixed condition especially through Chance, the novel's narrator.17 Chance is a mixed blood in a double sense. Not only has he melded with the Blues through communion with Ordé's blood; he is, like Mosley himself, the child of a white mother and a black father. Unlike Mosley, however, he was raised by his mother in a white setting and with little awareness of the racial facts of life.18 “She sent me to church and school and summer camp with all white kids. She told me not to listen when they made fun of me and to just ignore it when they played tricks on me. They never beat on me, because I was too big. But they could hurt my feelings anyway.
“I told Mom that I'd be strong, but I couldn't be, and when I left I never went back to her or her life” (41-42). His mother's attempt to be “color-blind,” that is, does not erase Chance's double-consciousness, but rather intensifies it. Caught between worlds, Chance enters manhood, as Du Bois put it, with “no true self-consciousness.” He simply drifts.
And yet, the doubleness that unfits him for life in the world is precisely what makes him open to the alternative reality of the Blues. “I spoke the white man's language, I dreamed his dreams. But when I woke up, no one recognized me. … All of this is why, Ordé said, I was open to the promise of blue light. My life was free from the identity half-life had make for itself” (18). To be caught between worlds is to be homeless. But to be homeless, as Emerson once remarked, is to be a “candidate for truth” in a way that more comfortable people rarely manage (Collected Works 2:202).
This is a point that was also familiar to some of the great African American essayists to whom we have referred. Du Bois, for instance, in the passage already quoted, says that the Negro, by virtue of his otherness in America, is “gifted with second sight.” The “veil” black Americans are born with, that is, is the caul that marks a child for prophecy, as well as a curtain that hides or excludes. Baldwin makes a similar point about the insight that the apparent debilities of blackness make available. “People who cling to their delusions find it difficult, if not impossible, to learn anything worth learning: a people under the necessity of creating themselves must examine everything, and soak up learning the way the roots of a tree soak up water. A people still held in bondage must believe that “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Price 516). Those most at home with half-life, that is, are those least likely to look beyond it. Those under unusual pressures, however, can become cracked in ways that let in the light.
In these reflections, it is the mixed condition that points toward transcendence. There are other passages in Blue Light, however, where blackness itself, as one element in the mixture, is given a spiritual status in its own right. For example, in one crucial scene, Chance's father appears to him in a dream to remind him who he is. “You still a black son to Africa.” The white blood Chance has from his mother is presented as something likely to distract him from his own better nature. “Just don't let her deny me in your veins. Don't let her tell you that you just the same. You're better than anybody could imagine” (41). Here, then, Chance's black blood is paralleled with the “blue blood” of truth he imbibed from Ordé. It is the thing that makes him “better,” the inheritance that reveals his birthright.
Whether one is black or mixed, however, the identity issues are about the same. In Mosley's novel as in American society, the categories overlap and either condition marks one as an outsider. Mosley's interest, in any case, is in the difficulty and necessity of owning the inheritance. You cannot become who you are until you first are who you are, with all the pain that might entail. This point may help us to understand why Chance responds with such anger and resentment when Nesta Vine tells him that she has come to regard her body, her black identity, as nothing more than a uniform (171). Whatever validity her statement may have from the rather inhuman perspective of the Blues, to Chance's ears it is a betrayal of both her race and her species. Her self-realization sounds to him like a flat denial of the self that represents his own best chance for insight.
An even closer analogy between black and blue appears in the book's explicit coupling of blue light and blues music, already noted above. Blues music, according to the view of it developed by Mosley in R. L.'s Dream, represents a breakthrough from a world of suffering into a more basic sense of life (13). It involves an odd reversal in which suffering is turned inside out—neither transcended nor overcome, but transformed into a kind of bridge “connecting me to all that lives” (Baldwin, Collected Essays 810). Enabled by pain and by intimacy with death, the blessing it brings is decidedly mixed—an unfriendly beauty that scorns the self and its comforts, a cold burning ecstasy. Like the blue God of Socrates Fortlow's aunt, what it reveals is just nothing. And yet its grandeur is undeniable. It represents the deepest things anyone could know. It sinks down to the “place between things,” and from there it fills the universe. Moreover, the form of consciousness awakened in the blues is undeniably specifically black, rooted in the particular history or inheritance of the race. And yet it points beyond itself towards an ecstatic overcoming of those same limits. To use Blue Light's own jargon, realizing oneself as black is to accept the blues as ones inheritance, and so to become Blue. But becoming Blue takes one beyond “race or species or life, even” (57). Realizing the truth about the world, you become even more a stranger to the world—even more black—and yet at the same time, one with all things.
Doubleness in Mosley thus takes many interrelated forms. Like race in America, it is both a predicament and a promise, a divided inheritance that also paradoxically opens the door to inclusive vision. Mosley's accomplishment, I submit, is to show how the two poles of this doubleness can be mutually illuminating without reducing either to the other—without dissolving the particularities of black experience into a vapid universalism, nor yet ignoring the ways particular historical experiences can point beyond themselves.
Perhaps it is this idea of a beyond—of a constructive albeit elusive horizon to the dilemmas of life, black and otherwise—that needs to be stressed in order to keep Mosley's particular accomplishment in focus. I am not the first to suggest that Mosley's greatest strength as a writer lies in the way he juggles ambiguities, especially when it comes to conventional concepts of identity. As Theodore Mason Jr. argued in one of the first and best critical essays on Mosley's work, Mosley's approach to the novel is “dialogical,” fulfilling the view of the modern novel proposed by critics like Lukacs and Bakhtin.19 That is, Mosley tends to create open frameworks for the airing of differences and the multiplication of meanings rather than closed worlds where all conflicts are resolved. I would add to this simply that in Blue Light. Mosley moves beyond the by now relatively familiar Postmodern trick of “decentering … conventional categories informing identity and cultural knowledge” to open a wider dialogue between history and spiritual aspiration—between the dimension of life where everything is always already decentered and the dimension that promises something “more,” a possible recentering (Mason 181).
In Blue Light, that possibility is represented by Treaty, the deep-woods colony created by Juan Thrombone. Here Blues, half-lights, and their ordinary companions are temporarily reconciled in an uneasy alliance. Conflicts are resolved, at least for a time, in the inclusive doubleness of “all sides.” There is nearly always a place like Treaty in Mosley's novels. Easy Rawlins' house in Devil in a Blue Dress is the archetype; Socrates Fortlow's squat in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned continues the theme.20 These places—these homes with their gardens—embody the possibility of a balance between private aspirations and public forces, freedom and fate, transcendent hopes and historical limits. They provide a space for life to thrive momentarily in the face of death and social decay. Nevertheless, what is always most striking about them is their fragility. Mortgages come due, and money is generally scarce. The neighborhoods are bad; attack could come from any direction. The possibility of recentering that Mosley raises, that is, is not an idle dream, but is always presented as an achievement of hard work and worldly wisdom. What some critics have characterized as a pastoral theme in Mosley's vision (Mason 178-79; Berger) is thus probably better understood on the model of a different classical genre: namely, the Virgilian georgic vision, stressing the kind of value that can be wrung out of life through “unrelenting labor” (Hassler 227).21
In Treaty, the zone of achieved balance is social rather than purely private or domestic. Treaty is a functional commune, and it enjoys a fairly long run at happiness thanks to Juan's shamanic diplomacy and the powers of the light. Still, Treaty eventually reverts to War. Life, that is, cannot exclude death, which eventually arrives in the person of Gray Man. It also cannot exclude its own history, which returns in the final act of revenge by which Miles brings the forest down in flames.
In the end, then, the brokenness of the world is not healed by the light. If anything, its conflicts are intensified, its ironies are deepened. In this, too, the larger drama of Blue Light reflects the intractable paradoxes of race. For the time being, it seems, we are no more able to get along with each other than we are able to untie the riddles of existence, and for many of the same reasons. And yet, the brokenness of the world does not blot out the promise of something better, a promise to which our very sadness attests. On the contrary, brokenness is itself an expression of Life, or as Gray Man says in Blue Light, pain is “similar to the gift of life. It is life's border” (71). Emerson made a similar point about the relations between suffering and transcendence—inheritance and birth-right—when he wrote in “The Over-Soul”: “We grant that human life is mean; but how did we find out that it was mean? What is the ground of this uneasiness of ours; of this old discontent? What is the universal sense of want and ignorance, but the fine innuendo by which the soul makes its enormous claim” (Collected Works 2:159)? Life thus persists as the background condition of every other awareness—the emptiness at the heart of form, the place between atoms—and it will always be as available and as necessary as the blues. The story ends in sadness and defeat, but a sadness that includes a resolution to wait for more light. Painful as it may prove, the best we can hope for, in Chance's final words, is another experience of that ambiguous light “that I know to be the teardrops of God” (296).
Blue Light thus brings together two of the most interesting strands in American writing: the Transcendental understanding of the human person, complete with the ironic qualifications brought to that vision by Emerson; and African American reflections on the difficulty of securing hope and identity in a racist society. The racial dilemma is placed in the context of a more general analysis of the human spiritual condition without thereby being “spiritualized” or wished away. Likewise, spiritual questions are rooted in social reality without thereby reducing their range of meaning or denying their universality. Like the best in Emerson and Baldwin, Blue Light holds open the horizon of human possibility without compromising a hard-headed skepticism about our chances for fulfillment, and even suggests how that faith and that skepticism are linked. Against the journalists who took the novel to be mouthing platitudes, then, I hope this paper has shown that Blue Light passes the basic test for a novel of ideas: it is good to think with, and it repays careful study.
For a comment along similar lines, see Curwen, who likes the way Mosley “throws light on a part of this city we seldom see” (1).
Another motive was simply his love of and long familiarity with the genre. See Mosley's reflections on the attractions of science fiction for him and for African Americans generally in “Black to the Future.” Interviews in which Mosley talks about his interest in science fiction include Evenson; “Walter Mosley”; and Pietsch.
Walt Whitman's original claim for Emerson as “the actual beginner of the whole procession” of American letters has been elaborated by Kazin in An American Procession. One of the strongest cases for Emerson as our “central man” has been made by Harold Bloom, especially in his studies of Emerson in The Ringers in the Tower; A Map of Misreading; and The American Religion.
These terms are usually applied quite sloppily, e.g. by Harold Bloom in The American Religion. The work simply hasn't been done yet to stabilize a consensus on their meanings and the distinctions between them. Nevertheless, all are typically employed to urge a similar point: that there is a consistent if loosely formulated “underground” tradition in Western spirituality that still goes begging for a name. One influential attempt at defining it is Antoine Faivre's “Introduction I” in Faivre and Needleman, ix-xxii.
The classic work on the role played by popular esotericism in American history and culture is Butler. See also Albanese.
The light seems to bring with it a kind of evolutionary teleology. For example, fish struck by the light are filled with “the desire to swim up onto shore” (4). Chance compares himself after his awakening to “an amoebic cell drifting in the ocean, dreaming of becoming a whale” (50). While teleology has no place in the scientific theory of evolution, this theme makes sense in relation to Mosley's professed interest in Hegel's ideas on the development of Spirit through history (see Pietsch). A teleological view of evolution is also a common feature of contemporary forms of Hermeticism, especially in New Age thought. See the discussion in Hanegraaff 158-68.
Mosley mentions his particular interest in Philip Dick in Pietsch. For a reconstruction of the experiences fictionalized in Valis, based on a reading of Dick's “exegesis,” see Sutin 208-28.
This is a hard one to document. As they say, if you were there, you probably won't remember.
The reference is to Johnson. “Love in Vain.” Also, while it doesn't come up in the book, it is perhaps worth noting that “the house of blue lights” is the place where Little Richard “saw Miss Molly rockin'.”
For an accessible discussion of Hermetic tradition, see Tuveson. The book is useful for providing a core-characterization of Hermetic cosmology. It is good on the distinction between Hermeticism and Gnostic dualism, but eccentric in its attempt to disentangle Hermeticism from Neo-Platonism.
Emerson, too, makes use of the analogy between music and meaningfulness, referring to nature as “mute music” (Collected Works 1:14).
The Gray Man, frequently called the devil, does indeed present a clear parallel to Lucifer in his preference for pure light over embodiment. He is in rebellion against the light's own project of incarnation, of joining itself with material DNA, just as Lucifer rebelled against God's intention to raise an embodied human being above the level of the angels. Thus, “Gray Man wondered how any true sentient being could think that mixing with flesh could be an improvement. … Gray Man wanted to be freed from the flesh. He imagined ripping off the old coat called Horace LaFontaine and flooding up from the earth toward home. That infinite journey from which he could return and tell them that it was all a mistake, that perfection had already been ordained, that he was the ultimate” (74-75). Gray Man, in this preference for purely “spiritual” existence, is the book's true Gnostic dualist, in contrast with the more Hermetic, world-affirming views held by other characters.
Perhaps there is a contrast between Emerson's generally democratic spirituality and Ordé's more elitist model. According to Ordé. “There are only two ways to become of the light. Either you see the true words or you are born of the blood of truth. You can never ascend. You have only the slight possibility of half knowledge. You may perceive that there is a truth beyond you, but you will never know it […]”, (44). This drifts toward the kind of Christian theology that denies the possibility of any natural knowledge of salvation. Nevertheless, in the theology of blue light, all living things at least have the conditions of enlightenment within themselves. The light could come to anyone, and all to whom it comes would recognize it. The only mystery is that so many are left in the dark.
See Emerson Complete Works 8:306-7: “Whilst every man shares with all mankind the gift of reason and the moral sentiment, there is a teaching for him from within which is leading him in a new path, and, the more it is trusted, separates and signalizes him, while it makes him more important and necessary to society. We call this specialty the bias of each individual.” The theme of “bias” in Emerson is presented clearly in Gelpe 71-99.
Mosley mentions his interest in Hegel in Pietsch.
If Gray Man is the book's Gnostic, as per note 12 above, then Juan is its pure anti-Gnostic in his sympathy with embodied existence. It becomes clear why Gray Man and Thrombone become the principal adversaries in the story's final conflict.
Chance, before the light, was writing a dissertation in Ancient Studies at Berkeley on Thucydides, focusing on his double role as participant/historian, an actor in the events he also records (46). Chance's position in Blue Light (which is dedicated to “Thucydides, the father of memory”) is exactly similar. He is both the recorder of a journal he calls The History of the Coming of the Light (23) and a central figure in the story he records.
Mosley comments on the differences between himself and Chance in an interview: “I was raised by both my parents and lived in black communities most of my life—I was lightskinned, but I knew I was black. … Chance is a dark-skinned black man, raised by his white mother, who was confused into thinking he was white” (Dretzka 17).
See Berger for an alternative view, stressing the extent to which Mosley's detective fiction remains trapped by “the reactionary politics embedded in the genre.”
Easy Rawlins's description of his house in Devil in a Blue Dress sets the pastoral tone: “Maybe it was that I was raised on a sharecropper's farm or that I never owned anything until I bought that house, but I loved my little home. There was an apple tree and an avocado in the front yard surrounded by thick St. Augustine grass. At the side of the house I had a pomegranate tree that bore more than thirty fruit every season and a banana tree that never produced a thing. There were dahlias and wild roses in beds around the fence and African violets that I kept in a big jar on the front porch” (19). In Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, Socrates Fortlow's circumstances are more drastically reduced, but his fondness for his house is no less intense. The house is ramshackle, “a poor man's room,” but there is a garden that gives him green onions, tomatoes, basil and garlic for his cooking (16, 25).
This distinction might also change our understanding of the political valances of Mosley's fiction. Mason (178-79) discusses the pastoral theme in Mosley under the heading of a yearning for “middle-class respectability.” While the home undoubtedly operate as a class-marker in the novels, I also see no reason not to take Mosley's aspirations as representing a constructive possibility. Peace, after all, is not an exclusively middle-class value.
Albanese, Catherine. “Narrating an Almost Nation: Contact, Combination, and Metaphysics in American Religious History.” Criterion (Winter 1999): 2-14＋.
Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. New York: Library of America, 1998.
———. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.
Berger, Roger A. “‘The Black Dick’: Race Sexuality, and Discourse in the L.A. Novels of Walter Mosley.” African American Review 31 (1997): 281-92.
Bloom, Harold. The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1992.
———. A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
———. The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
Butler, Jon. Awash in a Sea of Faith: The Christianizing of the American People. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Cone, James. Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. New York: Orbis Books, 1991.
Curwen, Thomas. “Walter Mosley on L.A.'s Mean Streets.” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17, 1999, Book Review section: 1.
Daynard, Jodi. “Characters Struck by a Bolt from the Blue.” The Boston Globe, Nov. 8, 1998: K2.
Dick, Philip K. Valis. 1981. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Dretzka, Gary. “Walter Mosley Branches Out.” Chicago Tribune Nov. 1, 1998, section 7: 17＋.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folks. 1903. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Joseph Slater et al. 5 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971-.
———. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. 12 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1903-4.
Evenson, Laura. “Walter Mosley Sees the Light.” San Francisco Chronicle. Oct. 21, 1998, E3.
Faivre, Antoine, and Jacob Needleman, eds. Modern Esoteric Spirituality. New York: Crossroad, 1995.
Gelpe, Donald. Endless Seeker: The Religious Quest of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: University Press of America, 1991.
Hanegraaff, Wouter J. New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Albany: SUNY Press, 1998.
Hassler, Donald M. “The Urban Pastoral and Labored Ease of Samuel R. Delany.” The City in African-American Literature. Ed. Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert Butler. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995. 227-35.
Johnson, Robert. “Love in Vain.” Rec. 1937. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. Columbia, 1990.
Judah, Hettie. “‘I Intend to Destroy the World.’” The Guardian, Apr. 6 1999, The Guardian Features Page: 4.
Kazin, Alfred. An American Procession. New York: Knopf, 1984.
Mason, Theodore L., Jr. “Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins: The Detective and Afro-American Fiction.” The Kenyon Review 14:4 (Fall 1992): 173-83.
Mosley, Walter. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
———. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York: Norton, 1990.
———. “Black to the Future.” New York Times. Nov. 1, 1998, sec. 6: 32-34.
———. Blue Light. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.
———. R. L.'s Dream. New York: W. W. Norton. 1995.
Pietsch, Michael. “A Conversation with Walter Mosley,” June 1998. Time Warner Bookmark, 1999.
Prager, Michael. “Cosmic Questions in a Black Context.” Boston Globe, Oct. 22, 1999: C15.
See, Carolyn. “Mosley's Allegorical Fantasy: Nothing Easy about It.” Washington Post, Nov. 13, 1998: D2.
Sutin, Lawrence. Divine Invasions: The Life of Philip K. Dick. New York: Carol Publishing, 1991.
Tuveson, Ernest. The Avatars of Thrice Great Hermes. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1982.
“Walter Mosley: The Books Interview.” The Observer, Apr. 11, 1999, The Observer Review Page: 13.
Whetstone, Mauriel. “The Mystery of Walter Mosley.” Ebony (Dec. 1995): 106＋.
Williams, Patricia. Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
Marilyn C. Wesley (essay date spring 2001)
SOURCE: Wesley, Marilyn C. “Power and Knowledge in Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress.” African American Review 35, no. 1 (spring 2001): 103-16.
[In the following essay, Wesley examines how Mosley both utilizes and expands upon the tradition of the hard-boiled detective genre in Devil in a Blue Dress.]
“One should try to locate power at the extreme points of its exercise,” according to Michel Foucault, “where it is always less legal in character,” where it is “completely invested in its real and effective practices” (“Two Lectures” 97). Novels of detection, which investigate extreme instances of extra-legal violence, may, therefore, be...
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Publishers Weekly (review date 28 May 2001)
SOURCE: Review of Fearless Jones, by Walter Mosley. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 22 (28 May 2001): 53.
[In the following review, the critic praises the title character of Fearless Jones as a “riveting new creation.”]
Abandoning the voice of his premier creation, Easy Rawlins, Mosley mines a new shaft of 1950s Los Angeles with a hero who combines the principles of Easy with the deadliness of Ray “Mouse” Alexander. The result is a violent, heroic and classic piece of noir fiction [Fearless Jones]. Narrator Paris Minton is an appealing figure—an easygoing black man for whom the written word is salvation and whose nameless used bookstore in...
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Walter Mosley and Robert C. Hahn (interview date 28 May 2001)
SOURCE: Mosley, Walter, and Robert C. Hahn. “PW Talks with Walter Mosley.” Publishers Weekly 248, no. 22 (28 May 2001): 54.
[In the following interview, Mosley discusses his protagonists, his decision to publish Gone Fishin' with Black Classic Press, and the comparisons between Fearless Jones and his Easy Rawlins series.]
PW caught up with Walter Mosley at the famed MacDowell Colony for artists in Peterborough, N.H.
[Hahn]: At one point in your new book, Fearless Jones, there is a reference that lets readers know that Fearless and Raymond “Mouse” Alexander are not only contemporaries, but they are...
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Tom Nolan (review date 10 June 2001)
SOURCE: Nolan, Tom. “What Isn't and What's Lies and What Didn't Happen.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (10 June 2001): 3.
[In the following review, Nolan lauds Fearless Jones as “thrilling and terrifically entertaining,” commending Mosley for creating such charismatic dual protagonists.]
“I was driving in a white neighborhood in the middle of the night with an open bottle of peach schnapps in the glove compartment, a married white woman hiding in the backseat, and a stolen.38-caliber pistol next to the gear-shift on the floor.”
It's the autumn of 1954 in Los Angeles, and we're in the middle of a thrilling and terrifically...
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David L. Ulin (essay date July-August 2002)
SOURCE: Ulin, David L. “A Grand Contrivance.” Atlantic Monthly 290, no. 1 (July-August 2002): 186-88.
[In the following essay, Ulin offers a positive assessment of Bad Boy Brawly Brown and discusses how Mosley's Easy Rawlins series recreates the landscape and social climate of mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles.]
I don't put much stock in classifying novels by genre. The simple truth is that good writing is good writing, regardless of its form. I'm not saying that all fiction is equal, or that engaged reading doesn't require an active, critical intelligence. But books like Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and James M. Cain's Double Indemnity are...
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Judy Simmons (review date May-June 2003)
SOURCE: Simmons, Judy. “An African American Guide to World Citizenship.” Black Issues Book Review 5, no. 3 (May-June 2003): 64.
[In the following review, Simmons applauds Mosley's depictions of unity within the African American family in What Next: A Memoir toward World Peace.]
The collective African American experience has evolved “a singular perspective on the qualities of revenge, security, and peace,” Mosley writes in this primer for post-9/11 geopolitics [What Next: A Memoir toward World Peace]. Our blood knowledge of the U.S.'s “rapacious capitalist interests” isn't exclusive, of course; but it is deeply personal in ways many other people don't...
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Publishers Weekly (review date 16 June 2003)
SOURCE: Review of Fear Itself, by Walter Mosley. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 24 (16 June 2003): 54.
[In the following review, the critic argues that the partnership between Paris Minton and Fearless Jones in Fear Itself should appeal to fans of Mosley's previous crime-fighting duo, Easy Rawlins and Mouse Alexander.]
In [Fear Itself,] this eagerly anticipated follow-up to Fearless Jones (2001), Watts bookstore owner Paris Minton and the dangerous but principled Fearless Jones tread the familiar territory mapped so successfully by Mosley's original detecting duo, Easy Rawlins and Raymond “Mouse” Alexander. The author depicts 1950s Los...
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Thomas Curwen (review date 6 July 2003)
SOURCE: Curwen, Thomas. “Smears on a Seamy L.A. Canvas.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 July 2003): 2.
[In the following review, Curwen praises Mosley's narrative skill in Fear Itself, asserting that the novel fits well into the “larger canvas of Los Angeles that [Mosley]'s been painting for some 13 years.”]
Nineteen-fifties Los Angeles is a city of lies. Behind the patina of prosperity and the promise of freedom lies a corpse or two in the grass, a man with a gun, a false accusation and enough desperation to keep crime writers in business for years. Hollywood knew this, but noir quickly dated. Chester Himes knew this, but he pulled...
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Walter Mosley and Jeff Zaleski (interview date 15 December 2003)
SOURCE: Mosley, Walter, and Jeff Zaleski. “A Host of Ideas from an NBA Host.” Publishers Weekly 250, no. 50 (15 December 2003): 53.
[In the following interview, Mosley discusses hosting the National Book Awards, the inspirations behind The Man in My Basement, and the perils of being a “literary writer who writes in genre.”]
PW met with Walter Mosley, host of this year's National Book Awards ceremony, days before the event at a downtown Manhattan restaurant. As Mosley dined on sweetbreads (“these are thoraxes, you know”), we talked of many matters, including the Stephen King controversy and Mosley's new novel, The Man in My Basement....
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Publishers Weekly (review date 15 December 2003)
SOURCE: Review of The Man in My Basement, by Walter Mosley. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 50 (15 December 2003): 54.
[In the following review, the critic commends Mosley's accomplishment with The Man in My Basement, asserting that Mosley “again demonstrates his superior ability to tackle virtually any prose form.”]
Even in his genre fiction, which includes mysteries (the Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones and Socrates Fortlaw series) and SF (Blue Light, etc.), Mosley has not been content simply to spin an engrossing action story but has sought to explore larger themes as well. In this stand-alone literary tale, [The Man in My Basement,] themes...
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James Marcus (review date 18 January 2004)
SOURCE: Marcus, James. “Behind Blue Eyes.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 January 2004): 3.
[In the following review, Marcus offers a mixed assessment of The Man in My Basement, faulting the novel for lacking the “colloquial zing” of Mosley's Easy Rawlins mysteries.]
More than a dozen books into his career, Walter Mosley still is best known as the inventor of Easy Rawlins, whose color-coded adventures began with Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990. Yet the author has persistently pushed the envelope since then, venturing into sci-fi (Blue Light), polemic (Workin' on the Chain Gang) and such free-standing fictional creations as R....
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Curwen, Thomas, “Red Sunlight through Ragged Palms.” Los Angeles Times (7 July 2002): E1.
Curwen praises Mosley for his imaginative vigor and unflinching honesty in Bad Boy Brawly Brown.
Dillon, Nikki. “Live from Dystopia.” New York Times Book Review (25 November 2001): section 7, p. 18.
Dillon lauds Mosley's inventive short stories in Futureland, commenting that the collection effectively taps into “post-September 11” fears to create a “startlingly inventive dystopia.”
Lindsay, Tony. Review of Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent Future, by Walter...
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