Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10793
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.
Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” marked a watershed for the European-American version of the history of North America.1 By 1890 the western frontier as a geographical space had disappeared, and “the frontier” as signifier was now cut adrift, its attachment to past, present, and future conceptual spaces a matter of debate. Indeed, for Turner himself the signifier slides significantly, sometimes figuring as a place where European-American settlement or colonization of North America ends, but also as a conceptual space, a shifting no-man's-land between European- and Native-American cultures, and finally, ideologically, as a “meeting point between savagery and civilization” (“Significance” 3).2
Other conceptual and spatial divides along ethnic and racial lines emerged almost simultaneously with the western frontier, however, and were available to absorb and transform its conceptual significance. The most obvious was that between European and African Americans embodied in the codes, economy, and practices of slavery and subsequent segregation. Such lines of segregation became particularly sharp and contested in urban settings, thanks to the close proximity of sizable communities formed along racial lines, often subject to differential treatment in terms of urban development, availability of credit, school funding, policing, and so forth. It is this urban manifestation of frontier ideology, and particularly the textual space opened up by crime fiction for an articulation of that frontier from its “other” side, that will concern me here.
Turner suggests, in an inchoate way, the need for and function of the particular ideological formation that drew a line between “white” civilization and “Indian” savagery, a term for which “black” criminal chaos could easily be substituted. Noting that there was not one frontier, but rather a trading frontier, a farming frontier, a military frontier, a railroad frontier, and so forth, he also notes that the various frontiers did not coincide geographically, nor in the economic interests that constructed them (“Significance” 10-15). In an attempt to account for the assumed ideological unity of the (European-American) United States, Turner maps these differences onto a progressive cultural history stretching from the savage prehistory of Indian lands in a linear development to the industrial metropolitan centers of the east. Ignoring the lack of fit between this mapping and the uneven developments of various frontiers, Turner identifies the Indians as the unifying factor that transformed the various frontiers, their regulation, and their histories into a unity by posing a “common danger” of absolute otherness (“Significance” 15).
It is difficult to reconcile this distinctive unity produced by common danger with Turner's invocation of the western frontier as the factor that transformed the European colonists into Americans: “The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier—a fortified boundary running through dense populations. The most significant thing about the American frontier is, that it lies at the hither edge of free land” (“Significance” 3).3 On the one hand, Turner conceives of the frontier as the near edge of...
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a wilderness of free resources, providing what he would later call a “safety valve” inhibiting the reproduction of the European class tensions between owners of the means of production and labor (“Pioneer Ideals” 279-80; “Social Forces” 320). In this sense the ideological work of the frontier was the production of individualism—meaning both individual liberty and individualized entrepreneurial competition—as an alternative to class politics (“Significance” 30). On the other hand, the frontier as a producer of unity is precisely a “fortified boundary” dividing “civilization” from “savage” others, a consolidating interpretation that rescues a racialized sense of national identity from the threat of anarchic individualism.
The role of individualism in this racializing and naturalizing of the frontier, translating it from a site of cultural contestation and ideological struggle into an expanding boundary of civilization, is overdetermined. First, the ideology of individualism romanticizes capitalist competition, displacing collective machinations with an image of a “fair fight” between free individuals. Second, as Richard Slotkin points out, early frontier narratives depicted figures like Benjamin Church and Daniel Boone as “the lone white man among tribes of Indians” even though “both men dealt with the Indians as agents for large land companies” (Fatal Environment 65). Produced by a familiar trope of individualizing the European-American self against collectivized others, the “long white man” would be a recurring image suggesting that the struggle of European Americans against the wilderness was not even a “fair fight,” but rather a heroic battle against the odds. Third, in conjunction with the representation of the far side of the frontier as vacant wilderness, capitalist competition (including that with Native Americans for land and resources) could be concealed behind images of individual entrepreneurs—whether farmers, traders, trappers, or prospectors—taming a “nature” divested even of collectivized Native American subjects, bringing it within the pale of culture. Finally, the ideology of individualism could mediate between the narratives of men against the wilderness and the experiences of the European-American colonists of the frontier as a site of ideological struggle between different cultures. A continuous stream of diatribes against “Indianization” and the motif of the “good Indian,” prominent in frontier narratives from Cooper through Zane Grey to the Daniel Boone television series, has helped in a variety of ways to reconcile a racially defined oppression with ideologies of egalitarianism and tolerance by posing frontiersmen and Indians as individuals free to choose European-American civilization over Indian savagery.
These various meanings and functions of individualism are not mutually compatible or equally operative in every moment of discourse. Such disjunctions are a consequence of contradictions that emerge in the ideological negotiation of material encounters between cultures or emergent micro-cultures.4 The ability of Turner to move discursively back and forth between “Indian lands” and “free lands,” or to rewrite complex modalities of capitalist competition as a progressive history inscribed seamlessly across the continent, demonstrates the possibility and necessity of evading such contradictions through the ideological isolation of discourses.5 In geographical terms, the western frontier was a battlefront in a territorial war that was articulated within various struggles over issues including race, the structuring of the State, and the proper use of land and resources. Because such war could not be justified according to prevailing ethics or law, it was necessary to isolate discursively the colonization of territory from the battle between civilization and savagery by converting “the idea of racial propensities into a rationale for wars of extermination” (Slotkin, Fatal Environment 54).
From the European-American perspective, then, the frontier wars were not wars of conquest, for the assertion of authority by the U.S. government to make legal claim to land occupied by Native Americans was tantamount to redefining Native Americans themselves as foreign intruders to be eradicated. Through this redefinition, the “Indian Question” was discursively linked to the “Slavery Question.” At the same time that the European-American frontier was being pushed westward, a new and distinctively American “science” of craniometry was developing an “objective” method for differentiating among races (see Jeffries 156).
Such work in racial “science” not only helped to justify the continuation of slavery and the war on Native Americans, but also helped determine the shape of the eventual “solutions” to those problems. Though the complete extermination of Native Americans and the mass transportation of black Americans “back” to Africa had many proponents, the compromise solution was collective oppression and exploitation facilitated by racial segregation, the containment of Native Americans and Native-American culture on Reservations, and the similar containment of African Americans through various forms of segregation.
This partitioning refocused the frontier ideology, which continued to map cultural and racial divisions, but in geographical terms now denoted relatively fixed lines of defense for the purity and order of European-American culture. Such lines became particularly charged in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where population densities and the size of minoritized communities threaten individualist ideologies, since the collective experience of exploitation lends itself to collective resistance or rebellion. Thus the meaning of the other side of the frontier, in the shift of focus from its western to its urban manifestation, has been partly transformed: no longer enemy territory to be attacked and conquered or vacant land to be cultivated, it now constitutes in mainstream European-American ideologies pockets of racial intrusion, hence corruption and social disease to be policed and contained—insofar as the “others” threaten to cross the line.
Like the association of individualism with European-American manifest destiny, the association of black urban communities in particular with the criminal side of the urban frontier has historically been overdetermined. Many of the African Americans migrating to the cities were forced to seek housing and then to remain in the poorest areas of the cities by discriminatory practices in housing, as well as in the workplace and schools (see, for instance, Glasgow, ch. 4 and 5). Furthermore, as Homer Hawkins and Richard Thomas point out:
Most northern white policemen not only believed in the inferiority of blacks but also held the most popular belief that blacks were more criminally inclined by nature than whites. … For decades, white officials in northern cities allowed vice and crime to go unpoliced in black neighborhoods. This non-protection policy had the effect of controlling the development of black community by undermining the stability of black family and community life.
Police indifference to black-on-black crime has been frequently noted in all regions of the U.S.6 and persists to such an extent that Rita Williams exaggerates little, if at all, when she says that “African Americans know they can murder each other with impunity and absolutely no one will care” (115).
Inadequate policing of intra-community crime, the saturation of black communities with liquor and gun stores, and gentrification supplement strategies of containment with strategies of eradication and displacement (on gentrification see Smith 108-14). If the war of extermination and deterritorialization goes largely unrecognized, it is because the urban frontier works more through hegemony7 than openly repressive force. All Americans can watch the physical and economic “self-destruction” of black communities on the nightly news, and conservative African-American intellectuals can be co-opted into chastising blacks for failing to take responsibility for “their own” problems and the disintegration of their communities.8 Meanwhile the urban frontier serves the same purpose for capitalism as did the western frontier and the European colonial frontiers in general: the production of relatively cheap resources, including labor.
Though specific techniques of oppression and exploitation have changed, then, the frontier ideology remains largely intact, though displaced. Individualism in particular remains crucial in disguising a site of ideological struggle as a line of defense against crime and chaos or the boundary of advancing modernization or “urban renewal” or “revitalization,” and for disarming collective resistance. Hegemony works through negotiation, though, and resistance does exist, in however fragmented forms. In the remainder of this essay I will consider one mode of resistance from the far side of the frontier, the emergence of African-American detective fiction, a popular form that has the capacity both to represent and enact resistance in social and literary terms.
CRIME FICTION AND THE RACIAL FRONTIER
And it wasn't just this city. It was any city where they set up a line and say black folks stay on this side and white folks on this side, so that the black folks were crammed on top of each other—jammed and packed and forced into the smallest possible space until they were completely cut off from light and air.
Cultural historians like Slotkin and Alexander Saxton have argued persuasively that the hard-boiled American detective is a direct descendant of nineteenth-century frontier heroes like Natty Bumppo, liminal figures who crisscross the frontier, loyal to European-American society but isolated from it through their intimate involvement with Native American others.9 Indeed, Saxton sees the rapid emergence of the dime-novel detective in the late 1880s partly as a consequence of the closing of the frontier and a corresponding “credibility gap … between the occupational activities of [real contemporary miners and cowboys] and the tasks that western heroes were expected to perform” (336). Critics of detective fiction—Cynthia Hamilton's recent Western and Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction in America is the most elaborate and thorough account—have likewise traced the lineage of the American adventure hero through the hard-boiled detectives of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and beyond, without, however, paying much attention to the fate of the “frontier” in that passage.
The importance of that genealogy is indisputable, I think, particularly for considering the ideological and cultural work of hard-boiled crime fiction. The emphasis on the figure of the adventure hero, largely apart from the rest of the hard-boiled urban world, has on the other hand been something of a critical red herring encouraged by the rhetoric of the fiction itself. Hard-boiled fiction, possibly more than any popular formula, has been overwhelmingly dominated by the individualism that is crucial to frontier ideology, in that it allows recuperation of the outlaw frontier hero who, in Slotkin's suggestive reading, is represented as renewing European-American civilization through acts of violence that at once transgress and defend its symbolic and geographical boundaries (81-106 and passim). Though particular discourses do, of course, construct particular subject positions, their most important ideological work lies not in the construction of individual subjects but rather in matrices of subject relations within a conceptual space. For that reason, we need to look beyond particular characters in adventure fiction to the dynamic spaces, the intersubjective matrices, constructed by those fictions.
Given the overdetermined association of African Americans and crime in everyday life and the representations of that association as a natural result of essential racial characteristics, one might expect black crime and racial conflict to play a more central role in hard-boiled detective fiction, which more often deals with white law and white deviance.10 That this is not the case seems partly a consequence of the transformation of the frontier from a movable western boundary into a relatively fixed partitioning of urban space. An overt war of extermination requires that the other side be represented, if in distorted or fantasmatic form. Sustained oppression, which is a covert war of extermination largely by ideological remote control, benefits more from sanctioned ignorance. Nevertheless there are occasionally references to a racial frontier at the extreme edge of society that marks the ultimate frontier, the absolute boundary of the “order” of the familiar, as in this passage from Mickey Spillane's One Lonely Night:
Here was the edge of Harlem, that strange no-man's-land where the white mixed with the black and the languages overflowed into each other like that of the horde around the Tower of Babel. There were strange, foreign smells of cooking and too many people in too few rooms. There were the hostile eyes of children who became suddenly silent as you passed.
This frontier dividing Harlem from the rest of Manhattan is represented from its far side in Chester Himes's novel of the same period, A Rage in Harlem (also known as For Love of Imabelle), as Jackson, the central character, on the verge of escape after a harrowing flight from the police, suddenly realizes that he has left Harlem and is “down in the white world with no place to go … no place to hide himself” (137). He turns back to face certain capture rather than go on. Himes does more than simply affirm the existence of the border, however: he explores its meaning as an ideological concept marking the exercise of white hegemony. In doing so he offers a conception of crime never more than tentatively articulated in European-American detective novels by acknowledging an “underworld” that is “catering to the essential needs of the people” (49; my emphasis), perhaps not in ideal fashion but in a manner necessitated by the character of the socioeconomic system. A good deal of criminal activity in this fiction is a result of the U.S. economy's partitioning through segregation. Crime itself, then, is a potentially resistant practice.
Viewing crime as part, rather than the breakdown, of a cultural system, Himes and, more recently, Walter Mosley construct a complex picture of crime and detection as a negotiation of cultural needs and values, operating within the black American subculture as a critique of white racial ideologies. Referring repeatedly and explicitly to the complex politics of race and class in the U.S., they seek to disentangle justice and morality from white hegemony, fighting exploitation and violence within black communities while also attacking a social system that engenders crime. In short, they resist the assimilation of the far side of the frontier as “chaos” and “evil,” favoring a conception of the frontier as a site of ideological struggle for rights and privileges between two American microcultures.11
The general grounds for such struggle are perhaps best summed up by Himes, commenting on “The Dilemma of the Negro Novelist in the U.S.A.”: “Of course, Negroes hate white people, far more actively than white people hate Negroes. … Can you abuse, enslave, persecute, segregate and generally oppress a people, and have them love you for it? Are white people expected not to hate their oppressors?” (398-99). Whatever differences there might be on specific details, Himes and Mosley agree in affirming the need for African-American opposition to oppression and in rejecting the privilege of white supremacist ideology to diagnose and prescribe remedies for the situation of African Americans.
Self-policing of a community, even an oppressed one, is not necessarily complicitous with the oppressive order, of course, or at least not completely so. As I indicated earlier, crime within an oppressed community may be a form of resistance, but it is also a part of the larger, macrocultural economic and social structure. In the U.S. that means crime is exploitative, for it acts out the imperatives of capitalist competition in a particularly unfettered manner. Therefore, as Manning Marable has pointed out, in relatively poor African-American communities, like those of the Himes and Mosley novels, “the general philosophy of the typical ghetto hustler is not collective, but profoundly individualistic … The goal of illegal work is to ‘make it for oneself,’ not for others. The means for making it comes at the expense of elderly Blacks, young black women with children, youths and lower-income families who live at the bottom of the working class hierarchy” (Marable 64). It is because of their need to resist the manifestations of individualist competition as criminal entrepreneurship that Himes's police detectives and Mosley's private investigator work in their own communities.
Aside from that common ground, however, the novels of the two series differ considerably, and these differences intersect in complicated ways with the construction of the urban/racial frontier in the two series. These constructions in turn reflect the contradictions produced by ideological struggle between differing American microcultures. A dominant ideology tends to be self-sustaining, thanks to its greater access to means of reproduction like educational systems and mass communication media. Nevertheless dominance and its reproduction can never be complete, never attend adequately to every extra-cultural force operating through travel, migration and immigration, international economic transactions, and so forth, or to every gap that develops in the intra-cultural social formation through uneven development. On the other hand, the pervasiveness of dominant ideologies tends to fragment and disperse the force of other microcultural modes of ideological resistance. Resistance is therefore always under pressure, faced with an incessant need to escape from or relocate itself within a space defined by the dominant microculture.
Michel de Certeau's Practice of Everyday Life still offers perhaps the most exhaustive attempt to theorize this locating of resistance, by positing two logical possibilities. Strategic resistance finds its space outside the domain of the dominant by attaching itself to an alternative, fully constituted ideology that exists elsewhere. Tactical resistance, on the other hand, works within the space of the dominant, exploiting the contradictions within that space as opportunities arise, but unable to hold on to what is gained in the tactical moment (34-39). The novels of Mosley and Himes can be usefully read as narratives representing, respectively, strategic and tactical resistance. To read the novels this way, however, also raises questions about the dichotomy de Certeau constructs, suggesting a more complicated relation between strategies and tactics.
Resistance in representational practices, of course, cannot operate in a straightforward manner. Fictional narratives in particular raise the question of the use of representation for resistance, since the diegetic world constructed by a narrative has an ambiguous, if necessary, relation to the world of everyday practice. Furthermore, representation of resistance need not itself be a resistant practice (mainstream media coverage of the Los Angeles uprising in 1992 offers the most blatant recent demonstration). Therefore, in what follows I will separate questions of representing resistance from the manner of representation, in this case narration.
“Detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson reporting for duty, General,” Pigmeat muttered.
“Jesus Christ!” Chink fumed. “Now we've got those damned Wild West gunmen here to mess up everything.”
(Himes, Real Cool Killers 28)
Representation and enactment of resistance to white hegemony is central to detective fiction of both Himes and Mosley. In discussing these issues, I will consider the two writers in reverse chronological order for two reasons. In terms of representation, Himes's police detectives occupy a more complex and ambiguous ideological space. In terms of enactment, Himes's formal experimentation, especially in Blind Man with a Pistol, possesses a more radical potential than anything in Mosley's writing to date, though the latter also suggests directions for resistance unexplored by his precursor.
Unlike detective characters ranging from Mike Hammer or Kinsey Millhone, who despite many differences all bend the law only to better uphold it, Mosley's Easy Rawlins readily and unrepentantly acknowledges having been on the “wrong” side of the law himself. His detective work is described as being for the community and outside the white system of law, often performed on a barter basis and for people who “had serious trouble but couldn't go to the police” (Red Death 5) because they themselves are already of material necessity living on the fringes, if not outside, of the law: “In my time I had done work for the numbers runners, church-goers, businessmen, and even the police. Somewhere along the line I had slipped into the role of a confidential agent who represented people when the law broke down” (White Butterfly 17). This strategic position of “confidential agent” is justified partly on the grounds that an African American could not both work for the police and remain part of the community. Speaking of Quinten Naylor, a black cop who figures in the second and third novels, Rawlins says that he “got his promotion because the cops thought that he had his thumb on the pulse of the black community. But all he really had was me. … Even though Quinten Naylor was black he didn't have sympathy among the rough crowd in the Watts community” (White Butterfly 18-19).12
Within the narratives as a whole, the division between a communal African-American order and white law proves tenuous. Mosley's first three novels turn on problematic intersections of the white and black communities of Los Angeles, focusing on figures who traverse the unstable interstice between: Daphne Monet/Ruby Hanks, an African-European-American (“passing” for a “white” woman) who likes the Central Avenue jazz clubs and black lovers; Chaim Wenzler, a Jewish member of the American Communist Party who works in and for the black community; Robin Garnett, a rich young white woman who has rebelled against her family and upbringing by becoming a stripper and prostitute in Watts under the name of Cyndi Starr. And in each case, Easy Rawlins is pressed into detective work by forces from the white world as well: racketeer DeWitt Albright, who plays on Easy's need for quick mortgage money after losing a job (Devil in a Blue Dress); the IRS and FBI, who threaten to prosecute him for tax evasion (Red Death); the L.A. police, who threaten to pin a series of murders on his friend Mouse (White Butterfly). More important than these connections with the white community, however, is Easy Rawlins' discovery that there is no simple way to work for order and justice in his African-American community when what counts as “order” and “justice” is defined, at least in part, by a dominant white supremacist ideology. Rawlins does not share the common illusion of the privileged, that such terms can be defined outside of ideology. He observes frequently that all people act according to what they perceive to be their own best interests. That leaves open, however, the question of whether a community that is systematically disempowered by a dominant ideology can produce a coherent strategic resistance.
Mosley's second novel, A Red Death, addresses the question most directly. At the beginning of the story Rawlins is summoned by an IRS investigator for tax evasion. Technically the charge is valid, because Easy failed to report as income ＄10,000 that he acquired illegally, though in his own view legitimately in Devil in a Blue Dress. FBI Agent Craxton then offers to help Rawlins cut a deal with the IRS, provided that he helps them get damaging information about Chaim Wenzler, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust and is a member of the Communist Party in the U.S. Craxton appeals to Easy's patriotism, positing an alliance between them through an explicit statement of urban frontier logic: “the Bureau is a last line of defense. There are all sorts of enemies we have these days. … But the real enemies, the ones we have to watch out for, are people right here at home. People who aren't Americans on the inside” (50). Easy doesn't trust Craxton, insists that he will do the job only because he has no choice, and tells us that his own feelings about communism are “complex” because of the alliance between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the war and Paul Robeson's professionally disastrous connections with Russia (47). However, he doesn't actually challenge Craxton's construction of the frontier between real Americans and un-Americans. Instead he dismisses the idea of communist activity in the African-American community and insists that he will help the FBI get Wenzler but won't work against his “own people” (53).
The rest of the narrative shows that any attempt to define such an internal frontier that aligns black and white interests against a common un-American enemy leads to unresolvable contradictions. Wenzler himself proves to be a sympathetic figure who works in the black community because of the links he sees between his own experience as Jew in Poland and that of African Americans (91).13 His main activities involve charitable work that Rawlins supports and aids. Furthermore, Wenzler's connections within the black community make any attempt to isolate him as an object of investigation impossible. Partly as a result of Rawlins' work, two black women and a black minister get murdered in addition to Wenzler, and Rawlins finds himself having to investigate the Garveyite African Migration group.
In short, Easy finds no reason to aid the FBI's investigation except his own economic interests, and he feels increasingly guilty about that. What is most interesting about the novel in ideological terms, however, is the response he works out to that guilt. One might expect that, seeing the impossibility of sharing the collective interests of the white-dominated U.S. government, Rawlins would decide between the two models for African-American opposition offered by Wenzler's Communist Party and the African Migration group. Both, after all, draw upon oppositional ideological formations, one drawn along class lines, the other along racial and cultural ones. Mosley uses an appeal to individualism to validate Easy's rejection of both collective positions. In each case Easy appeals to Jackson Blue, who might be described as the paradigmatic organic intellectual of Mosley's mid-twentieth century Watts. Jackson expresses his own rejection of the Migration agenda in terms of the cultural gap between Africa and African Americans: “We been away too long, man” (184). Shortly thereafter Easy echoes Jackson's rejection of the Migration movement himself, but with a crucial difference: “I got me a home already. It might be in enemy lands, but it's mine still and all” (190). Unlike Jackson's argument on grounds of collective, microcultural differences, Easy appeals to the imperative of individual property interests.
Jackson rejects communism on similar grounds of an unbridgeable difference of collective interests. While admitting that the communist economic agenda coincides with the interests of African Americans, he reduces the question of the Communist Party in America to the blacklist, and says that whites will eventually get off the list, but the situation of blacks will remain the same (197-98). Again Easy's rejection of collective action soon follows, based again on individual interests rather than microcultural ones: “It wasn't political ideas I didn't care about or understand that made me mad. It was the idea that I wasn't, and hadn't been, my own man. … Like most men, I wanted a war I could go down shooting in. Not this useless confusion of blood and innocence.” (203)
The position reflected here aligns Easy with the individualist ideology that has crucially underpinned conservative frontier American politics, which helps explain why he is unable to reject the FBI's new frontier account of real and unreal Americans even though he distrusts Craxton. The positing of “American” as a collective cultural and ideological identity stands in direct contradiction with the notion that what makes one American is precisely radical “individuality.” That contradiction has enabled the frontier ideology, in both its western and urban manifestations, to link an egalitarian political rhetoric with systematic aggression against Native Americans on the one hand, and the systematic underdevelopment of Black America meticulously documented by Marable on the other. Given the demand of political expediency, frontier ideology sometimes serves the establishment of national boundaries or internal partitions on the basis of an essentialist racial ideology that hierarchizes individuals by group identifications. At other times, however, and in other geographical or cultural terms, the idea that all people are free individuals is used to argue that they fall on either side of the frontier lines through their own bad choices or personal failings. The logic of individualism coupled with that of nationalism and patriotism thus permits systematic and collective cultural aggression and oppression to be passed off as a policing action against one bad Indian like Cochise or Crazy Horse or Geronimo, or as the legitimate surveillance of a dangerous black leader like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X—or a communist like Wenzler. That Easy Rawlins falls into line with the ideology that claims that he can be his own man seems to confirm the accusation made by his friend Mouse: “You learn stuff and you be thinking' like white men be thinkin'. You be thinkin' that what's right fo' them is right fo' you” (Devil in a Blue Dress 205). Thus it is on very shaky ground indeed that Easy chides the black police officer Quinten Naylor: “You one's them. You dress like them and you talk like them too” (Red Death 154).
The trajectory of Easy's particular negotiation of the contradictions of American culture can be traced, I think, to a lesson he learns from DeWitt Albright in the first novel of the series: “You take my money and you belong to me. … We all owe out something, Easy. When you owe out then you're in debt and when you're in debt then you can't be your own man. That's capitalism” (Devil in a Blue Dress 101). There is no necessary linkage between capitalism and white supremacist ideology, but just as racism can serve the interests of capitalism by ideologically fragmenting classes, so too can a capitalistic individualism undermine collective resistance to racism. Various sympathies notwithstanding, Easy's actions are structured by the drive to accumulate wealth, which drives wedges between him and the South Central community. At the end of White Butterfly, Easy announces his move to a section of West Los Angeles that “[m]iddle-class black families had started colonizing” (271). Significantly absent from the text is the recognition of the way this geographical sectoring of classes in the capitalist metropolis splits the interests of African Americans as a minoritized community—a phenomenon well understood by Bob Jones in Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go: “When you asked a Negro where he lived, and he said on the West Side, that was supposed to mean he was better than the Negroes who lived on the South Side; it was like the white folks giving a Beverly Hills address” (48). Instead, Easy's casual use of the “colonizing” metaphor suggests the subordination of collective interests to the exigencies of white capitalism, which undermines strategic resistance organized around either class or community.
As police detectives, on the other hand, Chester Himes's Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson align themselves explicitly with the existing power structure, while nevertheless enacting a tactical resistance within that system. Although they ostensibly solve crimes, the solutions often turn out to be plausible but false ones. These solutions satisfy the white legal establishment, but also work to rid Harlem of committed criminals while sparing others, often “squares” who have gotten involved in crime through a desperate need for money, and offering them incentives to avoid further crime. Usually these fortunate survivors, like Jackson and Imabelle in A Rage in Harlem or Sissie and Sonny in The Real Cool Killers, marry at the end of the novels. In addition, Jones and Johnson's position within the law enforcement structure allows them to critique it directly, which they do most frequently by pointing out the roots of black crime in economic exploitation by whites.
Nevertheless they take their orders and carry them out. As insiders, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed cannot mount any consistent resistance to white oppression. Rather, in the way that de Certeau cogently recognizes, they seize opportunities where they arise, never working directly against the interests of the police department, but twisting situations and police procedures in such a way as to subvert them and turn them to the use of the Harlem community.
Such tactical resistance proves as difficult to define and sustain as the strategic resistance attempted by Easy Rawlins, however, and that difficulty seems implicitly addressed by a trajectory that can be traced through the Grave Digger/Coffin Ed series. The pattern involves the way in which crime and policing, the relation between the two, and between the two and the Harlem community, are conceived.
As I pointed out earlier, a passage in the first novel of the series radically defines crime not as a deviation from, but rather an integral part of the U.S. economy, catering to “essential needs” of people that are not satisfied through “legitimate” business, or at least not satisfied uniformly, given the various kinds of inequalities that are also integral to the U.S. economy and culture. And far from standing in simple opposition to one another, the police and the organized crime system are also bound by economic relations. Himes's detectives are said to take “their tribute, like all real cops” (Rage 49), and as Coffin Ed succinctly puts it, “Crime is what pays us” (Cotton 100). Nonetheless, the novels insist on an order, a standard of tolerable or legitimate action, and that requires drawing a line, constructing a frontier. The passage on crime and the police in A Rage in Harlem reveals some of the contradictions that ordering raises, even within Himes's radical redefinitions:
[Grave Digger and Coffin Ed] took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering to the essential needs of the people—gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket. And they didn't like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves.
Aside from the complicated question of what constitutes “essential needs” or legitimate access to “rough stuff,” the inclusion of “strangers” in the list of those who cross the line of legitimacy is a particularly troubling one given the line drawn by whites that establishes all blacks as strangers outside Harlem. Jones and Johnson themselves, by working for the white police, make themselves strangers both in and outside Harlem. The novels themselves acknowledge this tenuous position. Early in The Heat's On, Coffin Ed notices residents of a white-occupied apartment building watching them, and remarks, “They think we're burglars,” to which Grave Digger replies, “Hell, what else are they going to think about two spooks like us prowling about in a white neighborhood in the middle of the night?” (16). In Blind Man with a Pistol a black woman appeals to the two for help when white policemen try to arrest her unjustly, and Grave Digger is forced to respond: “Don't look at me … I'm the law too” (59).
Theoretically, the problem is one that de Certeau's Practice of Everyday Life manages consistently to evade or finesse: since even dominant cultures are riven by ambiguities and contradictions emerging in the gap between ideologies and practices, how exactly is tactical resistance to be distinguished from complicity, or to put in terms that Himes might more likely use, how is justice to be distinguished from injustice?
Himes's novels themselves seem aware of this problem and try to address it by gradually shifting the position of Jones and Johnson from one of tactical to one of strategic resistance. The claim that the two take their tribute from the underworld like all the rest of the cops is reversed in later novels, and in Blind Man with a Pistol they are described as martyrs for the cause of honesty:
Now after twelve years as first-grade precinct detectives they hadn't been promoted. Their raises in salaries hadn't kept up with the rise of the cost of living. They hadn't finished paying off their houses. Their private cars had been bought on credit. And yet they hadn't taken a dime in bribes.
It is from this position of unshakable honesty that Coffin Ed can ask, in The Heat's On, “Is everybody crooked on this mother-raping earth?” (146). The immediate point of such passages seems to be the moral superiority of the two over the rest of the police force, yet the passages also work to legitimate Jones and Johnson's access to acceptable violence in Harlem on the same moral grounds. Thus Himes emphasizes the distance Grave Digger and Coffin Ed place between themselves and the Harlem community, a distance he otherwise tries to mitigate through occasional encounters between the detectives and acquaintances from their childhood. In effect, then, the resistant position of the detectives is established in terms of the individualist ideology that Mosley resorts to, because the legitimacy of Jones and Johnson's liberties with the law rests entirely on their individual moral quality, and has nothing to do with the inadequacy of the law itself. Collective resistance to a system of law and order based on collective oppression is therefore undermined altogether and the black detective located on what has been the good white side of the frontier all along. The project of collective opposition to a white supremacist culture succumbs to the fantasy of being one's own man.
Yet neither Himes nor Mosley embraces individualism unambiguously. Blind Man with a Pistol maps the end of multiple trajectories of the Harlem detective series, and where the career of Jones and Johnson leads to an ideological cul de sac, the narrative turns instead back to the Harlem community itself for a model of effective resistance. Indeed, the story is one of continual frustration for Grave Digger and Coffin Ed. They are forbidden by their superiors to use their prized pistols, forbidden to solve the murders that occur, and instead ordered to determine who's responsible for a series of riots in Harlem. The detectives offer one culprit themselves—Lincoln, who “hadn't ought to have freed us if he didn't want to make provisions to feed us” (135)—and they receive another answer from Michael X, a Black Muslim leader—“Ask your boss, if you really want to know … he knows” (174). Other culprits are produced by the narrative as a whole: an earnest but stupid integrationist organizer named Marcus Mackenzie; the leader of a Black Jesus movement named Prophet Ham, whose motives seem dubious; Dr. Moore, a racketeer who uses a Black Power movement as a front; and finally, a blind man with a pistol.
This multiplication of suspects, and the failure of the detectives to narrow the list to one guilty party, as the detective formula demands, suggests that the individualist question posed is the wrong one altogether. Instead the novel suggests that riots are caused by a conjuncture of various personal interests with a general atmosphere of frustration, resentment, and hatred. The parable of the blind man with a pistol that forms the narrative's conclusion, displacing the conventional tying up of loose ends in the District Attorney's office, is important in this regard. Superficially the tale suggests that riots are caused by blind anger lashing out randomly. There is a crucial, though implicit, connection between this episode and the rest of the novel, however. Though the blind man starts shooting his pistol because of a complex misunderstanding and hits all the wrong targets, the one certain condition of possibility for the even is his fear and hatred of white people that is produced by the dominant racial ideology of the U.S. It is the same ideology that creates the crowds necessary to turn an individual cause or scam into a riot, that allows Michael X to say with confidence, “Ask your boss, he knows” who's starting the riots, and impels Grave Digger to respond, “You keep on talking like that you won't live long” (175).
The turn away from individualist ideology, which permits right and wrong to be sorted out in terms of intrinsically good and bad guys, is manifested in other ways as well. For the first time in the series, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed have serious and repeated disagreements, not about facts or procedures in a specific case, but about their own role in general. Here's a representative passage, from a scene in which the detectives question a witness, a white woman named Anny:
“You changed your race?” Coffin Ed interrupted.
“Leave her be,” Grave Digger cautioned.
But she wasn't to be daunted. “Yes, but not to your race, to the human race.”
“That'll hold him.”
“Naw, it won't. I got no reverence for these white women going ‘round joining the human race. It ain't that easy for us colored folks.”
“Later, man, later,” Grave Digger said. “Let's stick to our business.”
“That is our business.”
In this reconsideration of their business, the detectives and the narrative itself suggest that the answer to the linked problems of racism and crime may not lie with them at all, but rather in collective resistance within the black community. In the earlier Cotton Comes to Harlem, a back-to-Africa movement is dismissed as a scam through which hustlers con the squares of Harlem, much in the same way that the Brotherhood, Black Jesus, and Black Power movements are dismissed in Blind Man with a Pistol. The Black Muslims also figure briefly in Cotton Comes to Harlem (114-16) and are not subject to the same satirical treatment, but neither are they dealt with in more than a passing way. However, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed's ultimate engagement with the Black Muslims in Blind Man with a Pistol, an alternative ending that immediately precedes the concluding parable, is marked by startling departures from character on the part of the detectives. For the first time in the series, their engagement with another character is free of both irony and paternalistic condescension. Having chafed at orders not to use their pistols throughout the novel, here they volunteer to surrender them as a gesture of their good will toward Michael X. And when Michael X does agree to talk to them, they listen with astonishing seriousness and humility to the man described unequivocally as “the master of the situation” (174).
I take the gesture of offering to hand over their pistols to be particularly significant because of the way it alters the position of the detectives constructed in A Rage in Harlem through the words “they didn't like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves” (49). This early position reproduces a dominant definition of legitimate access to violence. The gesture of laying down arms, while not reversing that definition, at least marks a refusal on the part of Jones and Johnson to uphold it actively.
The novel doesn't explicitly endorse the Black Muslims or lay out in any detail an effective oppositional strategy. Indeed, as I noted above, Grave Digger's last words to Michael X are a grim prediction of an imminent and violent death. In addition, sexual integration is tentatively held up earlier in the novel as the ultimate solution to racial inequality (64-65). I will not pretend to resolve the question of whether the proper form of black American resistance is tactical or strategic, terms that in this case coincide roughly with integrationist/assimilationist and black nationalist agendas. The merits and weaknesses of each of these projects have been widely debated, and the problems are perhaps best summed up by Michele Wallace (citing Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual) in “Doing the Right Thing”:
black political philosophy has always seesawed between an integrationist/assimilationist agenda and a cultural nationalist agenda. … Integrationist always ends up being an embarrassment to its black supporters because of the almost inevitable racism and bad faith of its white supporters; they are willing to “integrate” with a small portion of upper-class blacks only if the masses of poor blacks are willing to remain invisible and powerless. Cultural nationalism, on the other hand, has conventionally taken refuge in a fantasy of economic and political autonomy that far too often compounds its sins by falling into precisely the trap of bigotry and racism (against gays, women, Jews, “honkies,” and others) it was designed to escape.
Aside from the problems, though, integrationism and separatism need to be seen not in simple opposition to one another, but rather in triangulation with the ideology they resist, that of old or new frontier capitalist individualism. Thus far Mosley's series, at the level of representation, has examined that triangulation and opted for individualism, viewing the collective possibilities of integration or separatism as they inevitably look from the individualist position: as individual choices amounting to something like voluntary club membership. Himes's series, on the other hand, finally leaves the triangulation as exactly that, an unresolved tension pulling the community of Harlem in different directions.
Mosley gestures toward a critique of individualism in a different way, by elaborating Easy's place within a community. His relationships with other characters like Jackson Blue, Mouse, and Etta Mae are not merely glyphs that naturalize the authority of the central figure, as in most detective series, but rather change in significant connection to events of the narratives—Easy makes friends, loses them, feels the conflicts among his own various interests and ties acutely enough not to set himself on a moral pedestal. As a result those other characters attain a complex subjectivity that allows us to measure Easy's own limitations, making room for ironies at the level of textual narration if not at that of the first person narrator.
Himes's critique of individualism depends also on redefining crime again in Blind Man with a Pistol. Michael X implies that Harlem's crime is not a self-sustaining economy, as was suggested in A Rage in Harlem, and that the ultimate profit goes to the white community outside. In those terms, the irreducibly collective form of “crime,” rioting, that preoccupies the novel also invalidates the individualist premises of American justice and law enforcement systems. Walter Mosley's series seems headed toward similar ends, since the historical trajectory of his series so far suggests that Easy Rawlins will eventually confront the Watts riots of 1965, just as Blind Man with a Pistol obviously alludes to the Harlem riots of 1964. The difference between the two series in their relation to the individualism central to frontier ideology extends beyond representations of crime and detection or policing, however. The Harlem series and Mosley's three novels employ quite different strategies of narrational enunciation that have implications as well for their relation to the urban frontier.
ENACTING RESISTANCE: HIMES, MOSLEY, AND NARRATION
It was a Black-Art bookstore on Seventh Avenue dedicated to the writing of black people of all times and from all places. …
“If I had read all these books I wouldn't be a cop,” Coffin Ed said.
(Blind Man 171)
Like most kinds of fiction aimed at a mass market, detective fiction generally has been fairly conventional in most formal terms. Although the detective story trades heavily on enigmas, withheld information, misdirection, and confusion, readers can generally depend on the detective to finally put all the scattered pieces in place to construct a single, accurate account of events. Walter Mosley's novels are no exception, assuming perhaps the most common form for hard-boiled detective novels since Raymond Chandler began the Philip Marlowe series: a first-person narrative told by the detective. Though any narrative form can be manipulated to various ideological ends, this form lends itself to an individualist stance, especially in a formula where the central question might be articulated as “who has the one true version of the story?” The ideological frontiers that the detective novel generally constructs, between good and evil or justice and injustice, tend to get drawn around the figure of the narrating detective trying to negotiate a path of honesty in a corrupt world. Easy Rawlins agonizes over his own shortcomings and ethical blind spots—letting himself be manipulated into betraying his friends and community in A Red Death, forcing his wife to have sex against her will in White Butterfly, and so forth. He still seems to emerge, in his own accounts, as the most scrupulous and decent of the erring humans mired in the blindness of their cultural situations. In this respect Rawlins is hardly distinguishable from Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, or Kinsey Millhone, though as I suggested above, his meticulous placing within a community works against the monological form of the detective's narration, and perhaps will undermine it altogether as the series continues.
Chester Himes offers no such vision of community micro-politics, but on the other hand, he established himself as a formal innovator in the field of popular crime fiction from the beginning. In what seems an ingenious tactical response to the problem of writing novels set on the far side of the urban frontier, he rejected the convention of centering the novel in the perspective of the detectives, instead combining the narrational forms of the hard-boiled detective novel with that of criminal adventure narratives like James M. Cain's Double Indemnity or, to stretch definitions a bit, his own If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade. All the novels begin with so-called crimes and criminals, and the detectives often aren't introduced until several chapters into the narrative. Subsequently the point of view tends to shift back and forth, with some additional shifting on both sides of the law/crime divide. The limitations of each perspective are emphasized through a sprinkling of observations like “[Coffin Ed] hadn't discovered any lead to Uncle Saint, so he didn't know there were already three others dead from the caper” (The Heat's On 127). No single character ever acquires complete knowledge of the events of the novels. The conventional aim of the detective novel, to restore or uphold an order we are asked to accept as legitimate, and that of the conventional aim of the criminal adventure thriller, to test the order but finally to succumb or be reconciled to it, are displaced by a negotiation that never leaves an established order entirely dominant or unquestioned.
This mixing of genres tends to subvert the adamant insistence of crime fiction on the accessibility of “truth” to an individual perspective and its containment within a single coherent narrative. Such resistance to a dominant fictional mode is still limited, nonetheless, by established conventions of reading. Setting the detective story against the criminal adventure story does not simply consign meaning and truth to a site of contestation. Rather, both narrative points of view are subordinated to that of the overarching narration that assures readers of getting a true account, even if it is denied to any diegetic subject. Blind Man with a Pistol carries narrational innovation further, however, in a way that undermines the assurance of single, stable meaning.
As narratologists such as Seymour Chatman have argued, narrative discourse as such depends upon a double time-scheme, in which we can distinguish an order of diegetic events from the order in which those events are narrated (62-63). We need not have a complete account of the events told, but conventional narrative depends upon a stable narrational time to assure that a such a complete account is available in principle. Cutting between different scenes of action, different sets of characters, different points of view, and so forth, is acceptable even without explicit transitions, so long as we have the impression that a unique spatial and temporal relation between all the events could at least possibly be reconstructed.
Blind Man with a Pistol flouts these conventions. It is impossible to tell how many riots occur, or when they occur in relation to other events of the novel. There are repetitions of names and features of characters without a clear indication in some cases of whether the same character is reappearing or whether another happens to have the same feature. There are italicized interludes whose relation to the rest of the story seems to vary considerably. For the most part events seem organized according to a clear temporal order only within specific episodes.
This narrative disorder threatens the possibility of conventional narrative closure (aside from the fact that no closure is offered even nominally within some of the particular subplot sequences). If we nevertheless finish the novel and try to make sense of it, we are forced to seek some other principle of unity than temporal sequence of events connected through a limited set of characters. What offers itself instead, I think, is a thematic coherence linking various episodes. And the point of that alternative mode of coherence, I think, is that the problems of racism and oppression cannot be thought through in the personal, individualistic terms that conventional narrative offers, but rather in terms of collective practices that invisibly link disparate individual stories. In other words, a novel like Blind Man with a Pistol reproduces ideological linkages as rhetorical ones, and therefore renders at least potentially visible in fiction what is generally concealed in the practices of everyday life in the United States.
This is only textual play, perhaps. But the Frontier remains powerful as the text of American destiny, fixing it in a genre of expansionist adventure and natural cultural dominance. The erosion of generic boundaries may then be crucial to eroding the urban frontier. From frontier adventure tales to Proposition 187, the text of the frontier has been most effective in its capacity to construct a single cultural enemy on which to build a fantasy of a unified American people pursuing a linear national narrative. The disruption of narrative exemplified in Himes's Blind Man with a Pistol may offer one effective strategy for disrupting the frontier narrative itself in a way that lays bare its ideological underpinnings and internal contradictions. Mosley's digressions into the micropolitics of community and between communities pull at the seams of the detective narrative in another way, undermining the traditional generic reassurance that the good guys and bad guys can be sorted out, and disrupted order reestablished. Pursuing this trajectory, investigating the genre as much as the crimes, may lead toward and beyond the achievement of Blind Man with a Pistol, toward multiple stories that produce irreducibly multiple culprits. A radical rewriting of the frontier might thus be an overdue rewriting of Turner's thesis, insistently restoring the frontier's fragmentation that he was at pains to conceal.
I am grateful to Bob Winston, Mike Frank, and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, as well as four anonymous readers for College Literature, for valuable critical comments on earlier versions of this essay. I should also note a general indebtedness to the work of Marxist and postmodern geographers such as Neil Smith, Derek Gregory, David Harvey, and Edward Soja, whose works inform my theoretical framework.
The civilization/savagery opposition and the racial characterization of the frontier was, of course, partly an inheritance from and parallel development to ideologies of European colonialism. A detailed discussion of the relation between the development of the European-American ideology of racial and cultural difference I am discussing here and its European colonialist counterparts is beyond the scope of this essay. For a useful psychological analysis of self/other oppositions in colonialist ideology, see the introduction and conclusion in JanMohamed (1-13, 263-83). For an acute description of spatial partitioning of colonialist settlements that closely parallels that of U.S. cities, see Fanon 38-39.
Part of the confusion of Turner's essay results from his avoidance of the obvious comparison of the western frontier to European colonialist frontiers, which results, I think, from his determination to affirm a clear economic and ideological break between Europe and the United States. In later essays he approaches, without quite reaching, a recognition that “frontier conditions” had been but a localized sector of European colonialist capitalism.
For a difficult but useful analysis in discursive terms of such ideological negotiations, see the work of Homi Bhabha (esp. “Signs Taken for Wonders” and “Articulating the Archaic”) on ambivalent signification in the interstices between cultures.
I am using the term “isolation” in roughly Freud's sense, as a mechanism through which two ideas, acceptable in themselves but not in combination, remain accessible to consciousness but isolated from one another by repression or absence of any associative paths of connection (see Freud 45-48, 89-90). For a more elaborate discussion of ideological mechanisms of isolation, see Crooks.
See, for example, Marable 113. The phenomenon has been so widespread as to be obvious even to a demonstrably racist novelist like Raymond Chandler (Farewell 11).
Throughout this essay I use the term “hegemony” in Gramsci's sense of domination that works by eliciting the consent to be dominated from subordinate groups (210 and passim).
Judith Butler, in an essay on the first Rodney King trial, acutely analyzes a particular instance of white racist interpretive strategies that transform violence against African Americans as self-inflicted (20).
See Saxton 331-38 and Slotkin, “The Hard-Boiled Detective Story.” Bethany Ogdon critiques the focus on the descent of hard-boiled fiction from frontier adventure narratives on the grounds that it tends to obscure specificities of the later genre (72-73). Ogdon's objections are aimed at a critical methodology focusing on motifs or archetypes, rather than questions of genealogy, however. Her own provocative reading of relations between hard-boiled fiction and fascist ideology is compatible with the present essay, if one acknowledges homologous relations between fascist and frontier ideologies.
There is considerable ethnic coding of law and crime, but mostly involving the stereotypically more and less “civilized” European immigrants. Orientalism of the sort found in Hammett's Maltese Falcon and Chandler's Big Sleep is not uncommon also.
While dealing here with issues of race and, to a lesser extent, of class, I have paid little attention to those of gender. That would require a much longer essay, which I hope to undertake in the future. I would, however, point out that Himes's novels seem to me blatantly misogynist and Mosley's at least highly problematic in the way they construct gender roles and relations. Interestingly, Mosley's Easy Rawlins becomes increasingly self-conscious about gender relations in White Butterfly, and it is the novel's attention to conflicts between Easy's relation to his wife and the conventional masculinist trajectory of his detective work that offers the strongest challenge in Mosley's work to the identity of the detective fiction genre, which I will discuss in the final section of this essay.
Ellis Cashmore, in “Black Cops Inc.,” points out that such assumptions of natural microcultural affinities were commonly made in the early assigning of African-American police officers.
Easy Rawlins himself makes the same connection in Devil in a Blue Dress: “many Jews … understood the American Negro; in Europe the Jew had been a Negro for more than a thousand years” (138).
Bhabha, Homi K. “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” Race, Writing, and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 163-84.
———. “Articulating the Archaic: Notes on Colonial Nonsense.” Literary Theory Today. Ed. Peter Collier and Helga Geyer-Ryan. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990. 203-18.
Butler, Judith. “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia.” Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising. Ed. Robert Gooding-Williams. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Cain, James M. Double Indemnity. 1936. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Cashmore, Ellis. “Black Cops Inc.” Cashmore and McLaughlin 87-108.
———, and Eugene McLaughlin. Out of Order? Policing Black People. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
Chandler, Raymond. Farewell, My Lovely. 1940. New York: Vintage, 1988.
Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.
Crooks, Robert. “Reopening the Mysteries: Colonialist Logic and Cultural Difference in The Moonstone and The Horse Latitudes.” LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 4 (1993). 215-28.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove, 1968.
Freud, Sigmund. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. Trans. Alix Strachey. Rev. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1959.
Glasgow, Douglas G. The Black Underclass: Poverty, Unemployment and Entrapment of Ghetto Youth. New York: Random House, 1980.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International, 1971.
Hamilton, Cynthia. Western and Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction in America: From High Noon to Midnight. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1987.
Hawkins, Homer, and Richard Thomas. “White Policing of Black Populations: A History of Race and Social Control in America.” Cashmore and McLaughlin 65-86.
Himes, Chester. Blind Man with a Pistol. 1969. New York: Vintage, 1989.
———. Cotton Comes to Harlem. 1965. New York: Vintage, 1988.
———. The Crazy Kill. 1959. New York: Vintage, 1989.
———. “Dilemma of the Negro Novelist in the U.S.A.” New Black Voices: An Anthology of Contemporary Afro-American Literature. Ed. Abraham Chapman. New York: Mentor, 1972. 394-401.
———. The Heat's On. 1966. New York: Vintage, 1988.
———. If He Hollers Let Him Go. 1945. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1986.
———. Lonely Crusade. 1947. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1986.
———. A Rage in Harlem. 1957. New York: Vintage, 1989.
———. The Real Cool Killers. 1959. New York: Vintage, 1988.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
JanMohamed, Abdul R. Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1983.
Jeffries, John. “Toward a Redefinition of the Urban: The Collision of Culture.” Black Popular Culture. Ed. Gina Dent. DIA Center for the Arts Series on Discussions in Contemporary Culture 8. Seattle: Bay, 1992. 153-63.
Marable, Manning. How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America. Boston: South End, 1983.
Mosley, Walter. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York: Pocket, 1990.
———. A Red Death. New York: Pocket, 1991.
———. White Butterfly. New York: Norton, 1992.
Ogdon, Bethany. “Hard-Boiled Ideology.” Critical Quarterly 34.1 (1991): 71-87.
Petry, Ann. The Street. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.
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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1699
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.
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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 great detective writers who have used their genre to explore wider moral dilemmas, he is also the only real heir to Chester Himes, the visionary black crime writer whose picture of Harlem life in the 1950s has had such a seminal influence on black literature.
Mosley made his name with his bruised and battered L.A. detective, Easy Rawlins. A highly moral man who tries to do right but often fails, Easy is a latter-day Don Quixote, but one who doesn't often feel compelled to leave the 'hood. Less a detective than a rescuer, his knowledge of his community, rather than his investigative skills, provide the key to solving crime. His compassion and his distance—like that of his half-Jewish, half-African-American creator—give Easy his unique insight into the curious moral contingencies of American life.
Reading these novels, though, one felt more and more that Mosley was about to break his banks; that the genre couldn't contain him any longer. R. L.'s Dream is the product of this overflowing. The novel is about a fictional blues player, “Soupspoon” Wise, and his relationship to the music of the real legendary bluesman, Robert Johnson. In failing health and advanced years, Soupspoon is rescued by a young white woman from the streets of New York—a woman with her own bitter secrets—and is brought back to life by her care and by his fervent desire to get back to the blues.
In R. L.'s Dream, Mosley is attempting to do what Toni Morrison aspired to in her novel Jazz—turning the music into words. And in many ways Mosley's book, albeit more modest, is more successful. Some of this has to do with the music itself. Unlike gospel, with its message of transcendence; or jazz, whose clever complexity inspires such cerebral appreciation, the blues message is simply about ordinary pain. The kind that dogs you when you get up in the morning, and lingers with you last thing at night. The blues tells you no lies about the “by and by”; it promises no salvation in the hereafter; instead, it pins you down right here and right now with a sound full of blood and loss and failure.
Or that is how it is when Mosley plays it. At a crucial point in the novel, Soupspoon laments: “I never played the blues, not really. I ran after it all these years. I scratched at its coat-tails and copied some notes. But the real blues is covered by mud and blood in the Mississippi delta. The real blues is down that terrible pathway where R. L. travelled, sufferin' and singin' till he was dead. I followed him up to the gateway, but Satan scared me silly and left me back to cry.”
It has been a long time since a book has affected me like this one. Reading R. L.'s Dreamis a lot like listening to R. L. Johnson perform “Come On in My Kitchen”, on one of those scratchy recordings made in some forgotten motel room. The writing makes you want to cry or shout Amen. There are moments when it casts you down so hard you can feel the dirt in your mouth. What is miraculous about Mosley is the way that he lets the story tell itself. He never stands on a soap-box, or proselytises; he just draws his characters so clearly that they become irresistible.
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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
Walkin' the Dog (novel) 1999
Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History (nonfiction) 2000
Fearless Jones (novel) 2001
Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent Future (short stories) 2001
Bad Boy Brawly Brown (novel) 2002
Fear Itself (novel) 2003
What Next: A Memoir toward World Peace (memoirs and nonfiction) 2003
Six Easy Pieces: Easy Rawlins Stories (short stories) 2003
The Man in My Basement (novel) 2004
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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 and makes it unique is the way Mosley has rooted his books in the landowning dream of Los Angeles.
“When I was a poor man, and landless, all I worried about was a place for the night and food to eat; you really didn't need much for that,” Easy said early on in Devil in a Blue Dress, the first in the series. “A friend would always stand me a meal, and there were plenty of women who would have let me sleep with them. But when I got that mortgage I found that I needed more than just friendship.”
The need to pay the ＄64 monthly mortgage on his little house in Watts is what motivated the Easy Rawlins we first met in 1948: a 28-year-old veteran of World War II who moved, along with many of his old friends, from Houston to Los Angeles because “California was like heaven for the southern Negro. People told stories of how you could eat fruit right off the trees and get enough work to retire one day. The stories were true for the most part but the truth wasn't like the dream. …” Out of work and offered ＄100 by a sleazy fixer to find a white woman who “has a predilection for the company of Negroes,” Easy went against all his hard-won survival instincts to keep his house.
Unlike Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Lew Archer and other detectives who walked the meaner streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco, Easy wasn't a loner in a rented apartment, doing some client's bidding. On through the 1950s and early 1960s, with A Red Death,White Butterfly and Black Betty, the need to protect a growing, changing family and more property secretly acquired to avoid calling attention to himself were what forced a reluctant Easy into action. At the end of Black Betty, the bloodiest and darkest book in the series, he was looking for a job “that would keep me out of the streets forever.”
Now, in A Little Yellow Dog, it's 1963, and the 43-year-old Easy seems to have found that job, as head custodian at Sojourner Truth Junior High in South-Central Los Angeles. It doesn't pay much but comes with medical insurance for the two children, Feather and Jesus, whom he rescued from the streets and is raising in place of the daughter stolen by his ex-wife.
Almost all of his surviving friends have gone straight: Even the lethal weapon Raymond “Mouse” Alexander is pushing a broom.
Driving Mouse to work one day, Easy stops to look at two apartment buildings he owns, on Magnolia and Denker. “I was still in the real estate business in a small way,” he tells us. “But I no longer dreamed of making a fortune on speculation.”
So, on the surface at least, Easy's rough years of danger and sudden death appear to be behind him. But because we have come to know him so well (and because, it must be said, of certain expectations built into the mystery genre), when Easy tells us, “I didn't have faith that anyone would care for me,” on entering the Hollywood police station for what a cop calls “just a few questions,” we recognize the bald truth and wisdom of his words. Just beneath the thin cover of everyday work and aspiration, Easy is as much at risk as ever—set apart by his nature and the color of his skin. At any second he can still lose everything.
Easy's latest trip to the edge begins with two impulsive acts: having casual sex with an attractive teacher on her desk at 6:30 in the morning, and then agreeing to protect her nasty, yapping dog from a dangerous husband. Both acts saddle him with unwanted responsibilities, especially after the husband and his even more dangerous brother are murdered.
Caught between a coldly ambitious, totally plausible Latino police sergeant convinced that Easy's a thief and killer, and a truly frightening array of professional criminals of all colors, Easy has to solve a lot of other people's problems before he can begin to address his own: how to continue surviving as a man and a father.
The book ends with two major deaths—John F. Kennedy's in Dallas and Mouse's apparent passing after being shot and lapsing into a coma. Easy's job is also in danger because of all that has happened. But there are several hints of hope.
When last seen, Mouse is being carried away from a hospital in the formidable arms of his wife, Etta Mae, so there's a tiny chance he may return. A relatively honest gambler has presented Easy with a year's pay for favors rendered: The ＄6,735 will help cover future mortgage payments and college tuition. Perhaps the airline stewardess Bonnie Shay—a mysterious woman who at least “smiled and carried no weapons”—might be persuaded to change her plans and become a part of his family.
Easy has also decided to let his children keep the nasty little yellow dog. “As long as Pharaoh was around snarling and cursing,” he says, “I'd remember the kind of trouble that a man like me could find.”
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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 novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy recalls his homicidal friend, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander: “He had killed his stepfather five years earlier and blamed it on another man.” We are further told, in this and in the succeeding Rawlins mysteries, that Easy's involvement in this murder produced such a profound change in him that he was moved to transform himself from an illiterate Texas teenager into a traveled and well-read man of the world.
Authors of mystery series often add tantalizing bits of backstory to their works. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, has Dr. Watson refer to a number of unwritten cases, like that involving the giant rat of Sumatra, the details of which “the world is not yet prepared to know.” And it seemed particularly clever, and brave, of Mosley to have his hero refer to his epiphany without providing us with full details.
Well, it now appears that a complete account of Easy's defining moment has been in existence for quite a while in manuscript form. Gone Fishin' is a novel Mosley wrote before Devil but was unable to sell. It is available now, not from Norton, the publisher of the Rawlins mysteries, but from Black Classic Press, a small house specializing in works of history.
“There are about a dozen black writers whose work sells really big,” Mosley is quoted by Time magazine as saying. “We're making millions for white publishers, and I thought it was time to give back something.”
What he has given back is not an Easy Rawlins mystery. Unlike the other books in the series, which are very much in the private eye tradition of deduction and disclosure, Gone Fishin' is a short, muscular and violent coming-of-age adventure. Set in 1939 Texas, it chronicles a car trip taken by a naive, 19-year-old Easy and his pal, Mouse, from Houston to the latter's East Texas hometown, a hardscrabble patch with the Dickensian name of Pariah.
As one might expect, the journey is a bumpy ride, complete with two rather dim young lovers on the run, a hot-blooded conjure woman and her hunchback son, a pleasant but dotty aging grande dame and assorted other vividly etched characters, not the least of which is Mouse's stepfather, Daddy Reese Corn, a man of great strength brought quickly to his knees by the power of voodoo. All of them are like puppets manipulated by Mouse, the completion of whose master plan leaves Easy a changed man. “I met the strangest people and went to places that I could never have imagined,” he tells us. And because he aided Mouse, albeit unwittingly, and accepted a payoff for his assistance, “I lost what a religious man would call his soul.”
It's impossible to know without asking how much Mosley changed his original manuscript to conform to the other titles in the popular series. Maybe he didn't change it at all. Though Easy's narrative voice is unmistakably the same and the novel moves as swiftly and surely as the others, it remains a considerably shorter work.
Key elements are missing, primarily the complexities, surprises and textures of the detective stories. There are fewer societal observations, too, though one is as good as any the author has written: “Miss Dixon lived alone out in a colored community that hated her because she owned everything, even the roads they walked on. But Miss Dixon, and every other white person, was, to that colored community, like the cow is to those Hindus over in India. They'd all starve to death, let their children starve, before they'd slaughter a sacred cow. Miss Dixon was our sacred cow. She had money and land and she could read and go to fine events at the governor's house. But most of all she was white and being white was like another step to heaven. … Killing her would have been worse than killing our own children; killing her, or even thinking of it, would be like killing the only dream we had.”
Another missed element is a sense of place. The mysteries richly detail black life in Los Angeles in the '40s, '50s and '60s. In Fishin', the Texas background is given short shrift. Here's a sample from Devil with a Blue Dress: “When I finally made it back to my house, on 116th Street, it was another beautiful California day. Big white clouds sailed eastward toward the San Bernardino mountain range. There were still traces of snow on the peaks and there was the lingering scent of burning trash in the air.” Compare that with these somewhat less evocative lines from Gone Fishin': “Texas by train is a real desert … miles of flat gray stone and tumbleweeds blowing and plenty of nothing.”
Regardless, if Gone Fishin' were nothing more than a simple background story, it would still be eagerly accepted by Easy fans. Thanks to Mosley's style and talent for spinning a tale, it is considerably more than that. But it would be a mistake for the uninitiated to pick this prequel as an introduction to the beloved Easy Rawlins series or to the character. Both Easy and his creator seem to have improved with age.
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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 Mosley. Black Issues Book Review 3, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 57.
Lindsay applauds Mosley's portrait of a bleak future in Futureland, noting that the stories will fill readers with “wonder and provoking thought.”
Mosley, Walter, and Lynell George. “Transcending the Genre.” Los Angeles Times (24 November 1999): E1.
Mosley discusses the African American male protagonists in his short stories and novels.
Salij, Marta. “Everyday Evil: Walter Mosley's Young Hero Fights His Demons.” Detroit Free Press (25 January 2004): 4E.
Salij praises The Man in My Basement for its insightful examination of “the banality of evil.”
Villinger, Binti L. Review of Six Easy Pieces: Easy Rawlins Stories, by Walter Mosley. Black Issues Book Review 5, no. 1 (January-February 2003): 31.
Villinger examines how the stories in Six Easy Pieces enrich the recurring subplot of Mouse's disappearance in the Easy Rawlins series.
Young, Mary. “Walter Mosley, Detective Fiction and Black Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture 32, no. 1 (summer 1998): 141-50.
Young observes that Mosley's fiction, while following the traditions of the hard-boiled detective genre, includes narrative elements drawn from African American folklore, the oral tradition, and the slave narrative.
Additional coverage of Mosley's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 13; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 17; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Black Literature Criticism Supplement; Black Writers, Ed. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 142; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 57, 92; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 97; Contemporary Popular Writers; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Mystery and Suspense Writers; and St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, Vol. 4.
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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 ravage and bless the African American landscape: no less in Los Angeles, no less in Walter Mosley's unflinching portraits of this city.
His latest, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, leaves behind Easy Rawlins and the Watts of the late '40s, '50s and '60s to focus instead on the city today, a place where police helicopters prowl the night skies, where gunfire is never distant and where, most conspicuously, the black community is woefully divided among itself. While Mosley skips the bounds of mystery writing this time around, he proves himself equally adept searching for truth in everyday life, a place where the simplest questions (What do I do when I've lost my job? What happens when my husband doesn't come home at night? How do I stand up to the gangsters down the street?) are the most difficult to answer.
This collection of 14 short stories looks at the life of Socrates Fortlow, 58 years old and eight years out of Indiana State. Penitentiary Hard time taught Fortlow nothing more than his own tolerance and capacity for breaking the law. “I either committed a crime or had a crime done to me every day I was in jail. Once you go to jail you belong there,” he says, still haunted by the cruelties he witnessed.
His own was not a pretty business, a rape and double homicide back in 1961, but Fortlow played by the rules and turned himself in. Twenty-seven years later, having “discharged his debt to society,” he's on the streets of Los Angeles, lured to a city where the cops won't know him and where “everybody [is] in too much of a hurry to remember faces, places, times, and events.” Not a day passes, though, that he doesn't think of the couple he slaughtered. They were dead, and he was still asking himself why.
Fortlow's rehab begins on the streets of Los Angeles. Anonymity, loneliness and isolation (read invisibility) at first suit him; he's a bum (“what people call a street person in the 1990s”), ashamed of himself as he pushes shopping carts through the streets of South-Central collecting bottles and cans, waiting for hours in line at the redemption center and fighting the kids who would steal his pocket change. He believes it's all he deserves, this struggle to keep alive, bedding down each night in a drafty tear-down whose owner is dead and the city behind on collecting back taxes, Hunger and exhaustion are all he counts on until one day he nabs a 12-year-old kid skulking in the alley out back with a neighbor's dead rooster in a cardboard box.
When he was that age, Fortlow never was sure what was right. “You know—absolutely sure,” he admits, and today the line between right and wrong, to Mosley's credit, is still blurred. Darryl, the 12-year-old, has just killed someone. Petis, the sorry-ass doper in another story, finds it easier to get money by sticking a knife into somebody than getting a job, and in another, Ralphie, who's married and with kids, has no problem taking in plain view whatever favors Linda's offering down the street.
Though Fortlow's response to the life in the 'hood borders at times on being polemic and preachy (“What the biggest problem a black man have?” he asks. “Bein' a man, that's what. Standin' up an' sayin' what it is we want an' what it is we ain't gonna take.” And later, when Darryl confronts and fights some gangbangers in the neighborhood park, Fortlow is proud: “You stood up for yourself. … That's all a black man could do. “You always outnumbered, you always outgunned.”), Mosley wisely shoulders him with the burden of his own guilt, the painful memories of his crime and his deep need to find purpose, meaning and possibly even redemption. Later in the collection, which seems more of a novel as Mosley charts the development of this astonishing character, Fortlow becomes clearer in his vision of himself (he even gets a job at a supermarket, never mind it's three bus transfers away), his community and how, among other things, he can help Darryl.
In the story “Marvane Street,” Fortlow takes Darryl to a rundown neighborhood where they watch the comings and goings at a crack house, walk by the offices of a quasi-political militant group, the Young Africans, and then, three doors down and across the street, watch the small dark house where the undercover police—black cops no less—more interested in subversion than in the rot of drugs, keep up their surveillance. The lesson is not wasted on Darryl: The black community is feeding upon itself and in the process destroying its own vitality.
In Always Outnumbered, a white or even a multicultural world hardly exists. The remoteness of other lives or even ethnicities is presented without judgment or criticism; it's only a far-away sign of the increasing polarization that exists not so much between races but, more widely and more basically, between those with homes, jobs and money and those scrambling with none. Forget social services; only the older folk, men and women like Fortlow; his best friend, the World War II veteran Right Burke; and the lady who runs the rooming house—men and women who have seen their children getting shot, falling to drugs and losing the will to live—seem to understand, and in spite of their own poverty, are trying to offer an alternative. Hope, they are certain, will come from no other quarter.
It's a lesson that Mosley, who has spoken with some nostalgia about the strong bond among blacks during the days of Jim Crow (when blacks “realized there was no chance of help coming from outside the community” and “they knew they were only a hairsbreadth from misfortune happening to any one of them if they didn't help each other”) applies evenly throughout Fortlow's quest. In the story “History,” Fortlow remembers his visits to the Capricorn Bookstore before it burned in the '92 riots (Mosley's heartfelt homage to L.A.'s real-life Aquarian Bookstore). It was here that, newly arrived in Los Angeles, he learned to speak for himself and respect differing opinions.
While dismissing notions of Christian morality or any divine plan, Fortlow comes to realize that “any black man that ever did a thing for hisself broke the rules—he had to because the rules say that a black man cain't have nuthin',” and he honors the owners of the store because they broke these rules. “You started that store, made room for black men and women and didn't take no collection and didn't tell 'em what to think. … That revolution, brother, rebellion against the rule.”
By the end of Always Outnumbered, Fortlow's rehabilitation is taking hold. Less afraid of his own visibility, he takes on injustice, turning in an arsonist whose peculiar form of social restructuring threatens the community even further. Clearly the flames that rise from these fires (this time or next) burn only the black community.
Political yet temperate, angry yet subtle, Always Outnumbered is the work of a writer unafraid of pushing forward his own notions of responsibility and entitlement. Without sacrificing nuance or trying to settle the difficult and irreconcilable contradictions of life, Mosley casts the passive, rhetorical question that Waller, Armstong and Ellison pondered in a new light. “What did I do to be so black and blue?” seems suddenly less relevant by the end of Fortlow's long journey than it does in the beginning. Invisibility and the blues are, after all, states of being best framed in a black and white society. Always Outnumbered is ultimately the picture of a black community struggling to take on the challenge of finding its own better life and—given the strength, moral questioning and willingness to break the rules—may, just, succeed.
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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 by the work of Philip Glass and that he is looking forward to sharing that influence with you in the following new songs. Your heart sinks. If you have been a fan of Walter Mosley, that is exactly the kind of disappointment you're going to experience when you read Blue Light.
Mosley is famous for being one of President Clinton's favorite writers, also for being the author of six enormously likeable and successful novels featuring a character called Easy Rawlins. His last book was a wonderful collection of linked short stories, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, about a man named Socrates Fortlow, that was turned into an HBO movie earlier this year.
The Rawlins stories tend to be characterized as mysteries, but it's a mistake to describe Mosley as a crime writer. Though crimes are committed in his stories, he is, like the late Patricia Highsmith, less concerned with whodunit than with what happens to those who find themselves caught up in a train of violent events beyond their control. Mosley writes about people, specifically black people in the United States, but his themes are universal: right and wrong, life and death, love and hate, jealousy, revenge, poverty, prejudice. Blue Light, in seeking to address the same universal issues, is perhaps an attempt to throw off the mystery stereotype.
Blue Light defies categorization. In his dedication—to “Thucydides, the father of memory”—Mosley describes the book as a “history.” If anything, the book reads like a would-be allegory. Here's an outline of the story: It's the mid-1960s, and the human race has just begun; in the Bay Area, several people are struck by a cosmic blue light that affects their DNA, causing them instantaneously to develop all sorts of skills to do with telepathy, supernatural strength and so on.
The narrator of Blue Light is a man called Chance, “a half-black, half-white lost soul.” Chance, who has some characteristics in common with both Rawlins and Fortlow (well-meaning but often in the wrong place at the wrong time), hasn't been struck by the light (in the novel's parlance, he hasn't “witnessed” it—the evangelical tone is unlikely to be coincidental). The book contains an army of deeply unappealing characters. One is Claudia Heart, the embodiment of pure sex: No man can resist her. Her acolytes, crazed with lust and focused on Claudia to the exclusion of family, work, even sleep and food, are soon reduced to filthy, priapic skeletons.
The worst character is the Grey Man (having witnessed the light, he has become the living embodiment of Death, while inhabiting the body of a rather nice man, Horace LaFontaine). There's also a group of people who, it is not unreasonable to speculate, might still be lurking on the fringes of society, even if they hadn't had some kind of brush with the blue light. They are known as the half-lights and seem to endure the worst of both worlds, neither getting on peacefully with their old, ordinary lives nor evolving into super-beings. As if their lives weren't hard enough, the people struck by the Blue Light are quasi-vampires who regularly indulge in a repellent blood ritual either to survive or to develop into the kind of anti-Superman who characterizes a Blue Light at his or her finest.
Every time I came across one of these bloodletting (and mixing and drinking) episodes, I had to stop reading and hide the book for half an hour or so. This is because, however horrible and tedious Blue Light may be, Mosley is still a powerful writer: He has the power to move (as he has done to best effect in Gone Fishin' and in some of the Fortlow stories) and to repel, as he does steadily throughout Blue Light. But, even here, sometimes a phrase creeps in to remind you what a good writer he is, such as when he describes the Grey Man leaning back “in a corpse's recline.”
But these moments are few, and there is far too much Book of Revelations/acid-trip stuff, such as the vision Chance experiences when he is in a sanitarium after a blood ritual ordeal with Ordé, high priest of the Blue Lights and Chance's mentor: “The music spoke of that spinning celestial body and of the sun's heat. There was a long-ago cry of free-forming gasses and a yearning for silence. The universe, I knew then, was alive. Alive but still awakening. And that awakening was occurring inside my head. I was a conduit. We were all conduits. With my mind I could reach out to the radiance that embraced me.”
These radiant visions fill the first part of the book. Toward the end, life for the Blue Lights and their hangers-on takes a radically downward turn. I have never understood why the future (and this, despite its 1960s setting—when the human race apparently began—is a futuristic vision) is almost always portrayed as unremittingly bleak. I guess that it's because we know that human beings, ever since the Garden of Eden and subsequent Fall, tend to the bad. It's a shame when a writer like Mosley feels compelled to do the same.
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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 to work out where Walter Mosley is going. The novel is a species of sci-fi allegory, but the effect is an amalgam of styles and ideas, ranging from the obscure to the embarrassingly banal.
The problem is the box in which African American writers are trapped. Ten years ago, for instance, Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress had a fair-to-middling readership among crime buffs. Then when Bill Clinton was elected he revealed that one of his favourite writers was Mosley—Walt's reputation went through the roof. From being an average crime writer, he suddenly became the world's guru on all things racial.
In a sense, he was perfect for the role. His books were set in the comfortably distant past, before Civil Rights, before Black Power, before O. J. Simpson or the Reverend Al Sharpton. For middle-aged fans of the blues, jazz and Chester Himes, his fiction was a welcome blast of nostalgia, material for a liberal patronage which has long since become incongruous. At literary festivals, his appearances struck the familiar chords, franking the liberal credentials of the organisers and the audiences, offering up the illusion of an anti-racism without conflict or pain.
On the other hand, like every other African American novelist of note, Mosley's world ends where the story of race in the contemporary U.S. begins: that is, at the start of Civil Rights. Typically, black writers in the U.S. have been confined to the far side of this historical barrier, occupying grounds that have been extensively surveyed and mined. Leaving aside the occasional forays of writers such as John Updike and Tom Wolfe, American literature has practically nothing to say about race after Kennedy's death. This is a straitjacket that gives most contemporary African American fiction the intellectual vigour of a waxworks museum. In a world where ethnicity and class are increasingly giving rise to complex and fragmented issues, the old black versus white equations begin to seem tired and archaic.
Blue Light may be a valiant attempt to square the circle. In San Francisco, in the mid-1960s, a cosmic blue light strikes a group of people, transforming them into super-versions of whatever they were doing at the time. One of them, in the process of dying, becomes the embodiment of death, and sets out to track down and kill the others.
The survivors of the blue light wind up living in a sentient forest, tending the trees, bonding and engaging in various New Age rituals, rather like an updated bunch of Tolkien hobbits, guided by a Gandalf-clone, Juan Thrombone. They all have cute names: the narrator, for instance, is called Chance, and there is Alacrity, once a wild-child drop-out, who becomes a beautiful woman warrior swinging through the trees in perfect confidence. Then the Gray Man of death arrives, becoming embroiled in a struggle with Thrombone; and the pair of them are eventually devoured by the roots of the Bellowing Trees.
It all adds up to a fable that articulates similar ideas to those in the Easy Rawlins cycle—a cycle that retreats into the archaic world of tightly knit Southern black communities of the 1940s and 1950s. This time the escape from bigotry is represented as a flight into an ecological, New Age idealism. Mosley's success has long been associated with a romanticised stereotype of American blackness. Blue Light seems to indicate that he is aware of the extent to which he is trapped in a cul-de-sac of racial expectations and is looking, unsuccessfully so far, for a way out.
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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 new worlds to conquer, little Mr Benwell grows ever more perturbed. Finally the strain becomes too much. ‘You've not been writing poetry in Morocco?’ he tremulously enquires.
One somehow doubts that Walter Mosley, for some years now one of the hippest alternative crime writers on the block, will ever get around to writing poetry. All the same, what might be called the Plant Syndrome hangs over his new novel like river-fog. Mosley made his name with the Easy Rawlins series of black private eye excursions. Blue Light, on the other hand, while retaining the street sharpery and ghetto sensibilities of the earlier books, is a real departure: a kind of science-fiction parable in which a select band of human beings (along with quite a few flora and fauna) have their horizons irrevocably widened by exposure to a stream of stratospheric blue rays.
The ‘Blues’, gathered round their charismatic and libidinous leader Ordé, are closely monitored by a follower named Chance, a half-black, half-white college drop-out whose testimony this purports to be. Among the physiological symptoms he notes are heightened perception, DNA quickening, increased sexual appetite, above all bizarre changes to the blood—the latter so desirable that a hoodlum named Wince Fargo, struck down by the light as he commits a homicidal robbery, has his veins systematically milked by a tribe of addicted fellow-convicts.
This being San Francisco in the mid-1960s, where a great deal of incidental weirdness is out on parade, the Blues fit unobtrusively into the local hippy landscape. Trauma is at hand, however, in the form of ‘Gray Man’, a metamorphosed cancer sufferer hit by the light at the moment of his death, taken over by Evil (with whom he has plaintive conversations) and now bent on the cult's extermination. The rest of the novel offers a twitchy game of cat-and-mouse played out by the death zombie (possessed of such superhuman powers that he can gaily rip his victims' limbs off), the remnant of the Blues that survives his initial onslaught and some deeply bewildered law-enforcers.
Stark summary doesn't perhaps do justice to this extraordinary mix of weirdness, whimsy, blood, guts and politics (however subtly camouflaged, this is self-evidently a novel about the postwar black U.S. experience). Neither can it convey the sharpness of much of the writing, in particular the accounts of how individual Blues came by their transformations (‘Sad for all those years before the light, he felt a sudden awareness in a place so far away it was impossible to imagine.’) Looking for some kind of context in which to place it, I ended up, oddly enough, with the black American musician George Clinton (in fact he gets name-checked on the cover) who in the early 1970s, at the head of a theatrical ensemble named Funkadelic, devised a completely fruitcake but sneakily political black science fiction featuring a cosmic ‘Mothership’ from which a certain ‘Dr Funkenstein’ conveys ‘the Funk’ to his delirious followers.
Chance, a solitary survivor of the ensuing mayhem, ends up imagining the blue light to be ‘the teardrops of God’. Endlessly suggestive in its waywide musings and implications, Blue Light's ultimate effect hangs slightly out of reach. To say that it will make a terrific film is simply to avoid the issue. Going back to the Plant Syndrome, what one can say is that it is a transitional novel, in which 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. Where Walter Mosley wants to wind up is anyone's guess, but on this evidence I wouldn't be at all surprised if he got there.
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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 his own morality in a lawless world, he has written an altogether different and more ambitious book.
Walkin' the Dog, Fortlow's second appearance, is not a crime novel, but a series of scenes in which Socrates faces the responsibilities that freedom entails. Comparatively few dramas happen here—in fact, there's no real plot to speak of. But with this story of how a man learns to live with himself and those around him, Mosley creates a unique character and surely one of the wisest novels of the year.
Nearly a decade after his release from prison, still trapped in his own mistakes, Socrates is approaching 60 and living in a makeshift corridor between two disused furniture stores. But he now has new ties and more to lose: a steady job; a two-legged dog called Killer; and a boy he treats as a son, whom he rescued from a gangland existence. Socrates has opened his life to hope, but this becomes increasingly fragile as the police continue to make him a prime suspect for every crime in the neighbourhood. It is this conflict that gives Walkin' the Dog its edge. Although Mosley has consistently written about black male heroes, his cast of characters is multiracial and reflects the reality of Los Angeles today. He examines a relationship rather than a hierarchy, and his wars are never solely between black and white, but between men and women, between black men who have authority and those who don't, between a man's conscience and the violence of his past.
There are many remarkable things about this novel, not least Mosley's lyrical prose and his dialogue, which is as deceptively casual and improvised as the music that haunts Socrates's sleep.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, however, is the way in which small, daily triumphs and seemingly insignificant moments add up to Socrates's ultimate victory—his ability to stand up for himself without killing. Despite the underlying violence and age-old hatreds, Walkin' the Dog is more about goodness and compassion than transgression. It is a meditation on how one man can make a difference.
In Ernest J. Gaines's 1983 novel, A Gathering of Old Men—at last published in Britain—it isn't one man who counts, but 18 men. As in Walkin' the Dog, this impressive book explores the point at which a stand against brutality and corruption becomes necessary. On a sugar-cane plantation, a Cajun farmer is shot dead. A 30-year-old white woman claims to have done it, as do 18 elderly black men, each armed with a shotgun. Faced with such solidarity, and despite being convinced of one man's guilt, the sheriff is powerless to do anything but wait for the lynch mob that the murdered man's father is expected to lead.
Set in the 1970s, this is not a simple indictment of race relations in the American south, but a multi-layered tale told with dignity. One act of unexpected retaliation for years of Cajun cruelty unleashes long-suppressed emotions; who pulled the trigger becomes less important than the justification that each man had for doing so. These include personal reasons, such as the beating of a son or the rape of a sister, and shared resentments, such as the destruction of heritage or the lack of respect for black soldiers returning from war.
Gaines captures the achievement of these men, who are courageous after 70 years of hanging their heads in fear. As the tension builds to a moving and unexpected conclusion, there is a sympathy for both sides, if not for the generation that started the violence, at least for the sons and daughters expected to perpetuate it.
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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,” Mosley's nonfiction effort brings his singular voice and innovative views on race and class to the fore. By primarily exploring the class differences that pose the greatest challenge to our democracy, Mosley goes beyond old racial constructs to reveal the literal and metaphoric “chains” that bind us.
By contrast, a new book by journalist David J. Dent, In Search of Black America, takes up the unenviable task of trying to describe what life is like for blacks, specifically the black middle-class in the late 20th century. And where the finely honed vision and elegant tone of Mosley's book is a model of clarity, Dent's book is nearly done in from the beginning by its strained concept. “The black middle-class …,” Dent writes in his introduction, “is one of the more frequently ‘discovered’ groups in the nation's history, yet one of most misunderstood, too.” While Dent points out that generation after generation of white Americans have been continually “surprised” to learn that middle-class blacks exist, it is not unfair to wonder what, if anything, the larger community of blacks might gain from yet another book that attempts to enlighten whites about the diversity of African America. All the same, as with Mosley's essay, Dent's discussion is valuable for its potential to encourage blacks to think more creatively about how to ensure our continued progress in America.
In his fiction, Mosley takes us into worlds thick with emotion. Through his characters, he is extremely adept at highlighting the terrible results of white society's dedicated fear of the Negro. In Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, for example, Mosley's character Socrates Fortlow is a hard but charitable black man with a troubled past who scrambles to keep his dignity amid a daily onslaught of soul-killing hits from whites and self-hating blacks.
But by effectively using fictionalized characters to state his case, Mosley's own thoughts and opinions on life, and particularly on race and class, can only be surmised by readers willing to peer between the lines. In Workin' on the Chain Gang, however, Mosley's own ideas take center stage. And while they are refreshingly simple, one should not confuse the simplicity of Mosley's ideas with an absence of substance. The gist of his argument is that, should we pull together, the majority of Americans—those of us who do not run the major banks, businesses, and political enterprises that employ or otherwise profit from our labors—have the power to change “the system” for our own benefit. All it takes, Mosley believes, is a willingness to give up as many of the system's “chains”—like material obsessions, for instance, and apathy—as we can. His proposal is not quite Marxist, but Mosley is likely to cause a good number of former Cold Warriors to lick their red-baiting chops over this essay.
In sum, Mosley fingers the primary force that oppresses the majority of Americans: the tiny but powerful number of individuals and business entities who control the vast majority of wealth in the United States and around the world. The rest of us, Mosley says, are simply slogging along trying to keep our heads within the swirl of all that stuff—the technology, creature-comforts and the other distractions thrust at us by multinational companies who make much bank off our desperate consuming. Consequently, Mosley writes, the race construct as we know it in America—wherein whites continue to hold the economic and political power yet seem blind to their historic role in keeping blacks and other nonwhite people down—is merely a small part of a larger problem, namely, the human propensity for cruelty, greed, and power-mongering.
And before you can wonder if brother Mosley was going to step all neo-conservative on us, he says that he appreciates the unique place within the annals of oppression that is held by African Americans. Blacks, therefore, have all the more incentive to rail against the “juggernaut of capitalism,” Mosley says. In the end, Mosley raises intriguing questions about our own depth of commitment to making the world a more compassionate place.
With In Search of Black America, veteran journalist David J. Dent is one step behind Mosley in terms of examining blacks' economic gains during the past half-decade. In interviews conducted over several years, and in cities large and small across the nation, Dent plumbs the hopes and dreams of many blacks who have “made it” economically, but whose spirits are still dampened by white racism and discrimination on some level or another. To his credit, Dent does a fabulous job of telling their stories, and of providing historic background—from the annual Emancipation Day celebrations in Ohio, to black rodeo culture out West—that demonstrates how firmly entrenched blacks are in the United States.
Yet one wonders exactly for whom Dent is writing—white Americans who have willfully ignored the burgeoning black middle-class for more than a hundred years? Whites who have lately discovered the black middle-class and prefer to focus on its growth at the expense of the millions of blacks still mired at the poverty level? Or black Americans who (presumably) require a literary mirror to remind—or convince—ourselves that we are more than the sum of our well-documented dysfunctions and pathologies? Overall, Dent's treatment deserves praise, and it is heartening to read that increasing numbers of black Americans are moving toward economic self-sufficiency. But, as Mosley points out, is succeeding in the same system that has oppressed blacks for so long really a victory?
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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 possibilities of the genre for the expression of the African American experience, but also, more importantly, the ways in which it is perfectly designed for the purpose. The most prominent of these writers (who include Barbara Neely, Eleanor Taylor Bland, Penny Mickelbury, and Gary Phillips) is Walter Mosley, who follows Himes in choosing to work within the hard-boiled variant of the genre: his novels are in fact set in the same period in which Himes was writing, although the locale is 1950s and 60s South Central Los Angeles rather than Harlem.
Given the turbulent and often violent nature of the times, the reasons a writer might choose to reflect them through the medium of hard-boiled detective fiction might seem self-evident. But Mosley's work has made the point increasingly explicit that there is more to his authorial decision than simply zeitgeist. More important is his perception that the narrative principles and the mores of the hard-boiled detective story, especially as they pertain to the investigative figure and his methods of operation, have a resonance that transcends the formula of the genre when the detective in question is African American. Mosley's Easy Rawlins, it transpires, is a lot more than simply a darker-skinned version of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.
The world of the hard-boiled detective story, popularized in the 1930s and 40s by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, is essentially one of urban societal corruption and moral ambiguity. Rather than working to preserve social standards and values, as a detective does in a traditional mystery, the hard-boiled detective fights a lone battle against them while struggling to prevent himself from being infected by the corruption on which they are based. This struggle is additionally complicated by his constant immersion in the criminal milieu since an essential tool of his trade is his intimate knowledge and understanding of the criminal psyche: his ability not just to penetrate it, but, when necessary, to identify his own psyche with its corruption. The hard-boiled detective's task, then, is “not simply a matter of determining who the guilty party is but of defining his own moral position … [in] a complex process of changing implications” (Cawelti 146). These implications require the detective to redefine continually even such apparently basic terms as criminality: if a crime is a disruption or transgression of an established social order, for example, what constitutes criminal behavior in a society governed by moral chaos? The detective figure in the hard-boiled story, then, operates in a frequently murky borderland between good and evil, where he can never be sure at any given time which is which. He is thus an essentially liminal figure, with a foot in both camps, struggling to preserve the distinction between them, even if he is often unable, given the odds, to cause the good to prevail.
The ambivalence and duality necessarily inherent in such a detective's perception both of society and of himself take on a more profound significance in Walter Mosley's novels, where they become a powerful metaphor for the African American experience of “double-consciousness” (in W. E. B. Du Bois's phrase), especially in the urban America of the period. The “changing implications” of the investigative process become infinitely more complex, and painful to negotiate, when a black detective finds himself haunting an additional borderland, that where the interests of his own community and those of the broader, predominantly white, society uneasily co-exist and frequently collide. Mosley's protagonist, Easy Rawlins, is in fact characterized and motivated most centrally by his experience of duality and by a resultant ambiguity of attitude toward the cases he investigates, often reluctantly. At the same time, however, it is this very duality that facilitates the functional invisibility that he exploits to his advantage, making his detective work possible.
Easy Rawlins has so far appeared in five novels: Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), A Red Death (1991), White Butterfly (1992), Black Betty (1994), A Little Yellow Dog (1996), plus the “prequel” Gone Fishin' (1997). Rawlins establishes himself not as a professional detective but as being “in the business of favors. I'd do something for somebody, like find a missing husband or figure out who's been breaking into so-and-so's store, and then maybe they could do me a good turn one day. It was a real country way of doing business. At that time almost everybody in my neighborhood had come from the country around southern Texas and Louisiana” (RD [A Red Death] 5). But this modest “business” requires that he lead a double life since in order for the quid pro quo to work, he must conceal the fact that his clients are not his economic peers, that he is in fact a man of substance who through hard work has acquired and rents out several properties. He pretends to be the handyman—and does the handyman's work, while an employee in on his secret collects the rents—in order that his clients trust him as an equal who shares their values and concerns. “I had a reputation for fairness and the strength of my convictions among the poor. Ninety-nine out of a hundred black folk were poor back then, so my reputation went quite a way” (Red 5).
This benign deception has predictably polarizing consequences for Rawlins's life. On the one hand, it gives him an advantage in his role as an investigator, precisely because he knows so well how to exploit the guise of a poor working man: “As long as he thought I was a poor man he'd be scared of me. That's why I kept my wealth a secret. Everybody knows that a poor man's got nothing to lose; a poor man will kill you over a dime” (Red 108). Like all hard-boiled detectives, his superior insight into the psychology of those he investigates is a key weapon. On the other hand, though, this double existence wreaks havoc on Rawlins's private life, costing him his marriage, for example. “I had lived a life of hiding before I met Regina. Nobody knew about me. They didn't know about my property. They didn't know about my relationship to the police. I felt safe in my secrets. … The money wasn't apparent in my way of living. So there was no need for her to be suspicious. I intended to tell her all about it someday. A day when I felt she could accept it, accept me for who I was” (White 35). Who he is, however, proves to be a vexed question, and Regina's suspicions drive her away before he can satisfactorily answer it.
Although this juggling of public and private identities is the most obvious manifestation of the dualism of Easy Rawlins's existence, it is in fact also the most superficial. The borderlands that he inhabits produce a far more radical split identity, emblematic of the double-consciousness that arises when personal and racial identity are predicated on competing societal demands; indeed, it becomes apparent as the series progresses that Rawlins is far from being the only character so affected. On the most fundamental level, for example, Rawlins not only has two names—his formal name, Ezekiel Rawlins, and his nickname, Easy—but two different rationales for their use: in A Red Death, for instance, he says that “only my best friends used” the name Ezekiel to address him (20), while in Devil in a Blue Dress he identifies himself to a stranger as Ezekiel “because I didn't want her so familiar as to use my nickname” (53). While this suggests a basic ambivalence about his core identity, and the possibility and nature of “familiarity” with that identity, it also establishes another distinction: the invitation to use variations on his first name contrasts with his insistence to a disrespectful plant manager that “My name is Mr. Rawlins” (Devil 66). Here there is no ambivalence about the relationship of name to identity: he prefaces it by saying, “I pointed at my chest” (66). It is not incidental that the plant manager is white and has casually called him “Easy”; Rawlins thus projects a formal identity designed to command respect and repudiate a false familiarity based on condescension and a latent racism. Yet he is unclear what a “real” familiarity might be.
In addition to his double name(s), Rawlins also has a double voice, again reflective of the ambivalence of his self-perception. His narrative voice, as storyteller, uses “standard” English; Rawlins is an educated man who takes college courses in Shakespeare and speaks of the “love that poetry espoused” (Red 19). But he downplays his education in much the same way that he hides his wealth, for related reasons of community solidarity: he says of a black police officer, for example, “He had an educated way of talking. I could have talked like him if I'd wanted to, but I never did like it when a man stopped using the language of his upbringing. If you were to talk like a white man you might forget who you were” (Red 143). Voice reflects identity, in other words, so he consciously chooses a linguistic persona that aligns him with his “upbringing,” establishing verbally a loyalty to and continuity with that background.
Yet this is more than simply a pragmatic decision to speak the language of his clients, and to avoid the fate of the black policeman mentioned above, of whom he remarks, “Quinten had the weight of the whole community on his shoulders. The black people didn't like him because he talked like a white man and he had a white man's job. The other policemen kept at a distance, too” (White 20). Despite Rawlins's education, which he values, and his command of standard English, he finds it inadequate as a means of functioning verbally in the world that he inhabits: “I always tried to speak formal English in my life … but I found over the years that I could only truly express myself in the natural, ‘uneducated’ dialect of my upbringing” (Devil 10). Although he is essentially bilingual, he equates standard English with “talking like a white man,” and thus with crossing a perilous border; Quinten is in this respect his mirror image. Standard English lacks the linguistic freedom through which his sense of self can be fully articulated. Thus Mosley's decision to have him convey his story to the reader through the medium of standard English has a particular poignancy, suggesting as it does both an inner fluency in a language that does not permit him to express himself outwardly, and the necessity of using the language of the broader society with which he interacts, and to which he implicitly addresses himself (at least in part), if he is to convey the totality of his experience.
Inevitably, the ambiguity of Rawlins's self-perception is at the heart of all the moral ambiguities that inform his life and professional activities. Some are blatant, such as his investigating crimes while maintaining an unswerving loyalty to his best friend, an amoral and vicious killer. But many of the more important ambiguities are more subtle and revolve around, perhaps equally inevitably, the issue of race, which is itself here not an unambiguous concept. Rawlins's is not simply a black and white world, in any respect. Virtue does not reside exclusively in any racial or social group: although he tells us that “I trusted a black man before I'd even think about a white one. That's just the way things were for me” (Red 143), he also finds himself investigating black suspects at the behest of white policemen while the crime victims vary from a white woman who turns out to be a light-skinned black woman, to a white coed who lives a double life as a stripper, to a black preacher, a male Jewish activist, and a black maid, among others. Along the way Rawlins also “collects” some of the more passive victims, so that although he loses his own child with his departing wife, he becomes the unofficial adoptive father of a Latino and a mixed-race child. Sometimes the policemen he assists, or who assist him, are black, and when they are, they come in two varieties: “Naylor was idealistic, believing that law was a virtue and that the police were the tools of good. … But Lewis knew that the law is just the other side of the coin from crime, that they're both the same and interchangeable. Criminals were just a bunch of thugs living off what honest people and rich people made. The cops were thugs too; paid by the owners of property to keep the other thugs down” (Black 213-14).
The latter view is a classic description of the mores and social structure of the world of the hard-boiled detective story, where cops and criminals operate essentially by the same rules and methods, and where the line between “law” and “crime” is frequently so fine as to be invisible. But it also makes another important point: in this environment, the economic factor is the primary determinant of social order and worth, the primary social dividing line. This does become a racial issue by default since, as Rawlins says in the passage quoted earlier, “ninety-nine out of a hundred black folk were poor back then” (Red 5), and their poverty was largely a function of race, but this only complicates matters further for Rawlins, who is on one side of the racial divide and on the other side economically.
The reason, however, that Easy Rawlins is successful as a detective is precisely that he is able to exploit the fundamental ambiguities of his universe so that they work to his advantage: they enable him to function invisibly, and thus undetected. Downplaying his wealth in the black community, for example, and speaking the “‘uneducated’ dialect of my upbringing” to the authorities, enables him to hide behind the smokescreen of stereotype, and to elude scrutiny by conforming to the expected, predictable role: hiding in plain sight like the purloined letter. He tells us, referring to the “two days … that made me a detective,” that “Nobody knew what I was up to, and that made me sort of invisible; people thought that they saw me but what they really saw was an illusion of me, something that wasn't real” (Devil 128).
This is one of the oldest principles of literary detection, the manipulation of perception: the progenitor of detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe, used it in 1844 in “The Purloined Letter” to illustrate the invisibility of the demonstrably obvious. Because the human tendency is to overlook that which, as Poe's detective Dupin describes it, is “too obtrusively and too palpably self-evident” (222), it is thus rendered functionally invisible, and can elude detection and identification. If useful in the case of the purloined letter for the concealment of evidence, this principle becomes even more useful for the concealment of the detective himself, and doubly so for an African American detective who experiences, in Du Bois's words, the “sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others” (45). Rawlins's constant awareness of how he is perceived ideally positions him to manipulate and exploit that perception, in a process akin to Dupin's “identification of the reasoner's intellect with that of his opponent” (217), and to create “an illusion of me” that functions as a mask, adaptable to every occasion: a mask which is in each case “too obtrusively and too palpably self-evident” to attract scrutiny. In fact, it is precisely because Rawlins is forced to be so continually self-aware that it becomes necessary to find ways to use this to his advantage.
As an African American, Rawlins has available to him a pre-existent mask, the social stereotype that fosters invisibility, and in this respect his other major literary ancestor is obviously Ralph Ellison's invisible man. Poe ties the concept of invisibility more specifically to the process of detection, but in fact it is clear that Ellison's protagonist uses functional invisibility in much the same way, although he is a far less overt detective. In his Prologue and Epilogue, the invisible man reveals himself to have finally and consciously adopted for his own purposes the same liminal stance as Rawlins, after having unconsciously been forced to play a double role throughout his life. Secretly living in a white-owned building in a border area, the invisible man is clandestinely at work below the surface, and it is here in his “hole” that he performs his detective work. Again it comprises the manipulation of perception, but in this case his own: his detection involves shifting perspectives on, or altering his perceptions of, the clues that have crossed his path throughout his life, until ultimately he is able to assemble them into the picture that reveals the mystery, if not its solution.
Unable as a child, for example, to decipher the clue contained within his grandfather's advice to “Live with your head in the lion's mouth … agree 'em to death and destruction” (16)—in other words, manipulate and exploit the invisibility that stereotype creates—the invisible man brings it into clearer perspective when considering his much later encounter with Rinehart and his adoption of Rinehart's trademark hat and dark glasses, which make him invisible to Ras's followers: “They see the hat, not me. There is a magic in it. It hides me right in front of their eyes” (474). This dawning perception of the potential uses of invisibility parallels Rawlins's adoption and exploitation of “an illusion of me,” the mask that makes it possible for him to function freely. As Ellison wrote elsewhere, “Masking is a play upon possibility and ours is a society in which possibilities are many” (Shadow 54). His specific context here was the stereotypical mask of the Negro minstrel, of which he said, “its function was to veil the humanity of Negroes thus reduced to a sign, and to repress the white audience's awareness of its moral identification with its own acts and with the human ambiguities pushed behind the mask” (49).
But as Ellison implied, and as Rawlins and the invisible man make explicit, many possibilities become available when a reductive sign is made to signify subversively and when human ambiguities position themselves, of their own volition, behind the misleading mask. This latter point is crucial: for the invisible man and for Rawlins, invisibility can be a powerful weapon only to the extent that, in making use of an inevitable stereotype, they also retain the ability to reject it when they choose, rather than simply having it imposed upon them. Thus, for example, as Alan Nadel has said, “the figure of Rinehart is not so important as the invisible man's ability to become him—or not. In acquiring this ability, he fully becomes the marginal man, the crosser of borders, who contains secrets and uses disguise” (21).
In the essay “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke” (Shadow), Ellison was at some pains to question the relevance or validity of regarding Rinehart as a trickster figure, at least as derived from African American folklore. Be that as it may, Nadel's formulation of the “ability” that Rinehart unknowingly bequeaths to the invisible man suggests that at least some elements of the trickster can usefully be applied to Rawlins and the invisible man, particularly given their mutual experience of double consciousness, a belated awareness, in the case of the invisible man, and one of the key revelations produced by his detective work. Whatever the specific binaries of the trickster (sly/stupid, good/evil, divine/bestial, and so on), his genesis in the psychic tension between opposites causes him to function as “the principle of ambivalence” (Diamond xvii). This is the principle that the invisible man comes to recognize in his “hole” as the central controlling principle of his existence: “I too have become acquainted with ambivalence,” he says in his Prologue, “that's why I'm here” (10), and in his Epilogue, “So I approach [life] through division. So I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love” (567). This is the principle that enables Rawlins, who has come to this recognition much earlier in life, to operate.
In fact, Rawlins might be imagined as the invisible man's next incarnation as “the crosser of borders,” having emerged from his hole, taking advantage of ambivalence by exploiting the role of the trickster as “the enemy of boundaries” (Kerenyi 185), crossing social and racial lines, and fooling most of the people most of the time. The trickster analogy cannot be pushed too far, however. As Jung's analysis emphasizes, the trickster's “chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness” (203), but it is clear that Rawlins and the invisible man are not only highly conscious but, indeed, doubly so. Yet even here there is a certain parallel. Jung's trickster “is so unconscious of himself that his body is not a unity, and his two hands fight each other” (203). Double consciousness can have the same effect.
In tracing Easy Rawlins's literary inheritance from Poe and Ellison, it is important to make a distinction between the ways these two writers conceive of the workings of invisibility in the detection process. Perhaps the most obvious difference is their conception of the origin and causes of such invisibility: for Poe it is an interesting theory of perception, but for Ellison a profound and problematic sociological phenomenon. The means by which their detectives manipulate functional invisibility also differ. The invisible man recognizes that to decipher the clues that will reveal the truth he cannot simply rely on empirical evidence, which is so often deceptive, but must also take account of what can only be known intuitively: learning to trust his intuition is a decisive step toward perceiving the mystery of invisibility. “There is … an area in which a man's feelings are more rational than his mind” (Invisible 560). Poe's Dupin, on the other hand, is concerned to show that all “apparently intuitive perception” (141, emphasis added), as he puts it in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” is actually the result of rigorous analytical reasoning, a stance that reflects, in part, the tendency in Western thought to resist the mysteries of the nonrational or nonlogical, which cannot be co-opted into the dominant ideology and thus intellectually controlled.
For a contemporary African American detective writer like Mosley, however, the differences in these two approaches can be as fruitful as the similarities. Combining the analytical and the intuitive, taking Poe as a theoretical model and Ellison as a sociological and aesthetic model, and grafting both onto the blueprint provided by the hard-boiled genre, Mosley has been able to construct a new narrative approach that establishes a distinctively African American variant on what has historically been a predominantly white genre (see Crooks). Moreover, there are indications that Mosley is not alone in this vision of the possibilities of African American detective fiction. While Mosley may or may not be a direct influence on their work, it seems clear that other writers have mined the same veins of social and literary history, leading to the construction of similar narrative approaches, though often with salient variations, which demonstrate the principle's flexibility.
Not all invisible detectives need be of the hard-boiled variety. For example, Barbara Neely's detective fiction also uses the model of functional invisibility, but in this case applied to a different mystery subgenre. Neely exploits the class distinctions of the domestic mystery through a protagonist, the ambiguously-named Blanche White, whose work in domestic service renders her socially invisible, although this is again by default a function of race: she becomes embroiled in her first mystery, for example, when a wealthy white woman sees her standing outside, and simply assumes she is the new maid, complaining, “That agency always sends you people to this gate” (Lam 11). Since Blanche is “on the lam” at the time, it is to her advantage to exploit this misunderstanding and to disappear behind the stereotype, where she becomes invisible to the household whose secrets she is thus enabled to penetrate. Even “among the Talented Tenth,” as a guest at an exclusive African American resort where “who made her clothes and how well she'd whiteified her hair” (Talented Tenth 15-16) are important determinants of social standing, Blanche's lowly status according to these standards ensures that she is insignificant enough, and thus invisible enough, to have the freedom to investigate crimes and decipher clues that are invisible to others.
The principle of investigative invisibility has even begun to appear in the work of white authors who create black protagonists. James Sallis's black hard-boiled detective Lew Griffin (who in Black Hornet operates in 1960s New Orleans), for instance, conceals himself behind the same mask of stereotype as Easy Rawlins to conduct his detective work: “People seldom pay attention to generic black men going about work they certainly wouldn't do” (164). Griffin's life is equally structured by duality and ambiguity. White friends turn out to be black, for example; victims are of varied racial backgrounds; and of a black culprit whose motive is unknown, Griffin remarks, “So do some almost manage their invisibility—for themselves and their motives. His rage, I thought. … His calm expression of it. That's what was so terrifying. And why at the same time, at some level (at more than one level, truthfully), I identified with him” (175). It then emerges that the rage stems from the man's fury at discovering his father was white and from his resultant crisis of self-perception. The rage, confusion, and frustration that can arise in this milieu from such societal and racial dualities and ambiguities, contributing to the chaos with which a hard-boiled detective (of any color) must contend, are underscored by a cameo appearance by Chester Himes, father of African American hard-boiled detective fiction: he is introduced to an audience with the words, “Chester Himes is angry. Very angry” (97).
Thanks to the emergence in recent years of Mosley and Neely, and others such as those mentioned above, the ranks of African American writers of detective fiction have swelled to permit the publication of an anthology, Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes (1995), and spawned full-length critical studies, the most notable being Stephen F. Soitos's The Blues Detective. It would seem that the long comparative drought since Himes's heyday is over. Despite Walter Mosley's eminence as a best-selling author, he cannot of course be held to be single-handedly responsible; many factors have contributed to the current burgeoning market for African American popular fiction, from the success in other genres (amplified by the translation to film) of writers like Gloria Naylor and Terry McMillan, to Maya Angelou's national Inaugural prominence, to Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. This resurgence of interest in detective fiction, however, can be at least partially explained by the resonance of the trope of invisibility as it has been used by Mosley and others to construct a literary model of detective activity with specific relevance to the realities, concerns, and history—indeed, the entire epistemology—of the contemporary urban African American experience.
Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.
Crooks, Robert. “From the Far Side of the Urban Frontier: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley.” College Literature 22.3 (1995): 68-90.
Diamond, Stanley. “Job and the Trickster.” 1972. Radin xi-xxii.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: New American Library, 1969.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. New York: Vintage, 1973.
———. Shadow and Act. 1953. New York: Vintage, 1972.
Jung, C. G. “On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure.” Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Radin 195-211.
Kerenyi, Karl. “The Trickster in Relation to Greek Mythology.” Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Radin 173-91.
Mosley, Walter. Black Betty. New York: Norton, 1994.
———. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York: Norton, 1990.
———. Gone Fishin'. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1997.
———. A Little Yellow Dog. New York: Norton, 1996.
———. A Red Death. New York: Norton, 1991.
———. White Butterfly. New York: Norton, 1992.
Nadel, Alan. Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1988.
Neely, Barbara. Blanche among the Talented Tenth. New York: Penguin, 1994.
———. Blanche on the Lam. New York: Penguin, 1992.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Edward II. Davidson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956.
Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. Intro. by Stanley Diamond. Commentaries by Karl Kerenyi and C. G. Jung. 1956. New York: Schocken, 1972.
Sallis, James. Black Hornet. New York: Avon, 1996.
Soitos, Stephen F. The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction. Amherst: U Mass P, 1996.
Woods, Paula L., ed. Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction of the 20th Century. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10289
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.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8254
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 understood as pertinent inquiries into the practical operation of power. And crime fiction, contemporary critics argue, is a particularly apt medium for the negotiation of racial inequities.1 Walter Mosley's adaptation of the hard-boiled genre in Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), the first volume in his Easy Rawlins mystery series, stages an examination of the new possibilities for black empowerment in the aftermath of the Second World War.2
Originating in the 1920s, the American hard-boiled detective story is similar to its classic British counterpart in organization, but dissimilar in content. It begins with the introduction of the detective, then sets him into action in pursuit of a mystery which turns into a crime, trails him through a convoluted investigation, and concludes with the solution of the crime. The differences derive from setting—the corrupt underworld of the modern city instead of the potentially pastoral British country house. In place of imposing rational discovery, the hard-boiled hero experiences bewildering initiation into the violence just under an urbane surface. Unlike the cool and remote classic detective, the hard-boiled variant is understandably human in his confusions and disappointments, and he substitutes simple toughness and temerity for esoteric methods of logical reasoning in order to fashion an ad hoc morality out of the lost ethics of an impure world. The system of justice he encounters is damaged but not beyond repair. And it is his job somehow to mend it.3
The essence of both the classic and hard-boiled detective story is the pursuit of knowledge, and the source of that knowledge is the violence that threatens civil order. The difference between the white hard-boiled detective and Mosley's black detective is to be found in the ends which that knowledge serves. Despite his cynicism, a character like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe is a servant of the dominant system of law and order. But Mosley's Easy Rawlins needs to learn how the operation of that system in the post-war era affects the power of the black man to survive and prosper. This lesson takes shape through a series of mentors who teach him about the levels and types of violent power, and finally leads him to the enigmatic woman whose mystery abrogates the conventional categories of his experience. His process of detection does not result in a unitary moral code; instead, the acts of violence he encounters call for a confusing variety of ethical responses. Through the adventures and the ambivalence of the black detective, Devil in a Blue Dress and subsequent works in the Rawlins series enact a Foucauldian structure which teaches that power, like law, is not an order to be retrieved but the contingent result of specific circumstances that black men may understand through violence and adapt to their own needs for respect and freedom.
If, as the saying goes, “Knowledge is power,” it makes sense that the race and class in charge have sought to curtail its access. The restriction of black knowledge is historically evident, from laws against teaching slaves to read to contemporary inequities in support for education in predominantly black neighborhoods. The violation of this restriction is certainly one of the major appeals of the black detective novel. The classic detective, like Sherlock Holmes, an agent of the aristocracy, puts his highly specialized knowledge to use solving lurid crimes in a manner that protects the dominant class from the threat of or responsibility for violence. By defining criminal activity as deviation, his solutions demarcate knowledge as separate from violent power. But the later hard-boiled detective, like Philip Marlowe, seeks rather than possesses knowledge, which emerges from his informed participation in the violence that surrounds him. It is this characteristic connection between knowledge and power mediated by the narrative of detection that makes it so useful in the serious attempt to define these prerogatives for black manhood and which revises the meaning and source of black knowledge in Devil in a Blue Dress.
In his seminal 1845 autobiography, Frederick Douglass recounted several key means of reclaiming the manhood denied by the institution of slavery: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall now see how a slave was made a man” (294). The ability to earn a wage and the participation in a supportive fraternal community are significant elements in this reversal, but even more important are Douglass's achievement of literacy and the physical defense of his own rights in a fight with an overseer.4 This conjunction of knowledge and force comes to fruition for Douglass in his career as an abolitionist spokesman. In Fighting for Life, Walter J. Ong traces the historical roots of “the alliance between masculinity” and a combative academic style (140) in a rhetorical practice of education based on the exclusionary exercise of masculine competition: “What was taught … was to take a stand in favor of a thesis or to attack a thesis that someone else defended.” Students “learned subjects largely by fighting over them” (122-23). Douglass, who was deeply influenced by his early discovery of the ideational confrontations structuring the debate about slavery in The Columbian Orator, excelled in an age when public information, like education itself, was delivered in the form of verbal combat. For him the acquisition of knowledge and the assertion of masculine force were conjoined parts of the same racial struggle.5
As an influential writer and speaker, Douglass demonstrated power previously restricted by literacy laws largely to whites. This violation of the racial prohibition of knowledge and physical aggression are presented in Douglass's Narrative as linked declarations of full humanity. Yet, paradoxically, the greater educational opportunity for blacks during ensuing decades separated these two prerogatives. In contrast to Douglass's militant assertions, Booker T. Washington connected institutional learning at Tuskegee Institute with patterns of accommodation: “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly …” (37).6
Influential later works from different political perspectives continued to assert the divergence of knowledge and power. Although Richard Wright, unlike Washington, presented aggression as resistance to accommodation in Native Son (1940), in the autobiographical Black Boy (1945) he proposed black literacy as an alternative to violence. In his 1964 Autobiography, Malcolm X portrayed the continuing schism between knowledge and power in his perceptions of the differences between blacks in two different Boston neighborhoods in the 1940s:
What I thought I was seeing there in Roxbury were high-class, educated, important Negroes, living well, working in big jobs and positions. Their quiet homes sat back in their mowed yards. These Negroes walked along the sidewalks looking haughty and dignified. …
I spent the first month in town with my mouth hanging open. The sharp-dressed young “cats” who hung on the corners and in the poolrooms, bars and restaurants, and who obviously didn't work anywhere completely entranced me.
The most important difference between the classes of “the Hill” and the ghetto is symbolized in Malcolm X's account by a Roxbury teenager named Laura, “a high school junior, an honor student” who “really liked school. She said she wanted to go on to college. She was keen for algebra, and she planned to major in science” (71). Although her attraction to the hip style of Malcolm's world eventually leads to Laura's degradation, initially she makes him feel “let down, thinking of how I had turned away from the books I used to like when I was back in Michigan” (72). For Malcolm the energetic black lower-class cultural style he is so attracted to leads him into a life of frenetic violence that excludes the pursuit of education, which he associates with an enervated black middle class. In prison, however, he pursues an ambitious program of self-education, and in his later role as a race leader is able to combine the knowledge he had previously associated with the black middle classes with the force he connected to lower-class experience in the rhetorical stance of the Black Muslim movement.
As this brief analysis indicates, the terms knowledge and power, central to the detective genre, are, within the context of black culture, historically determined, racially loaded, and gender-inflected. Accordingly, the meditation on these issues in Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress is from the outset historicized and politicized.7 “I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy's bar,” the book commences. “When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948” (1). This sentence suggests that former patterns of black capitulation to white authority were in the process of change in the period just after the Second World War. Thus, before the detective conundrum is even introduced, its purpose is established: the detective's discovery of the implications of an emergent black empowerment. Easy Rawlins's qualifications for the career of detection that begins in this work include a high school education; his ability to speak “proper English,” combined with the savvy to “express [himself] in the natural ‘uneducated’ dialect of [his] upbringing” (10) when the occasion calls for it; and his experience as a black soldier in World War II—abilities suggesting the juncture of knowledge and power which the plot unfolds.
The historical placement of the novel speaks to the complex inscription of power and knowledge around politically altered issues of black manhood during the post-war years. This change is signified by the occupational dilemma of the protagonist. In 1948, prior to his enlistment in the detective plot, Easy has been employed at Champion, a Santa Monica factory that assembles airplanes, but he had been fired as a result of white antagonism. When faced with the choice between capitulation to his boss and pride in himself during his attempt to recover his job, Easy chose the latter: “‘That's Mr. Rawlins,’ I said as I rose to meet him. ‘You don't have to give me my job back but you have to treat me with respect’” (66).
Easy's situation rewrites Chester Himes's If He Hollers (1945), in which self-respect is not an alternative for protagonist Bob Jones, who loses his job at Atlas, a Los Angeles shipyard, in 1941. Bob's impulse to preserve his pride involves him in an inescapable cycle of personal anxiety and possible violence. Although Jones reports that he had experienced racism prior to 1941, he had not comprehended it as a terrifying, endemic condition until the internment of the Japanese in California: “It was taking up a man by the roots and locking him up without a chance. … It was thinking about if they ever did that to me, Robert Jones, Mrs. Jones' darker son, that started me to get scared” (3). The alternative to this fear is expressed in his imagined aggression toward its racial source during a brawl with a redneck co-worker: “I wanted to kill him so he'd know he didn't have a chance. I wanted him to feel scared and powerless and unprotected as I felt every goddamned morning I woke up …” (35).
Mosley's implied citation of Himes, reiterated in his choice of the black detective genre dominated by Himes,8 introduces the change in the status afforded by black participation in World War II. As Easy's experience exemplifies, some black soldiers, despite segregation, participated in active combat, and in 1948 President Truman integrated the armed services. This change affords Easy new access to what he calls “the kind of freedom death-dealing brings” (98). Significantly, If He Hollers ends with Bob's conscription, whereas Devil in a Blue Dress starts after Easy's military service. For Bob, violence, his own or that of a bigoted community, is a constant threat; for Easy violence becomes his “Yale College,” in Melville's phrase. The enigma in Mosley's work addresses not the tenuous survival of blanket exclusion, the problem for Himes, but the search for the terms of the new option of limited inclusion, the possibility of black male “respect” and “freedom” brought about by black participation in the war. Rawlins's conventional search for a missing woman in the plot is an innovative thematic attempt to explore the conditions and constraints of new historical opportunity. It is this theme which fuels the detective's rather extraordinary pursuit of knowledge and structures the novel around his encounters with a series of black and white mentors who teach him the political implications of violent practice.
One important motive for Easy's participation in the detective adventure proposed by the white lawyer Dewitt Albright is the acquisition of knowledge,9 as this explanation by Joppy Shag, his black sponsor in the enterprise, indicates: “‘Don't get me wrong, Ease. Dewitt is a tough man, and he runs in bad company. But you still might could get that mortgage payment an' you might even learn sumpin’ from ‘im’” (8; my emphasis). During much of the novel, Easy's dogged pursuit of such learning is developed through the detection plot—his attempt to uncover the where-about of Daphne Monet—but frequently his curiosity seems to exceed the riddle of the story.
For example, when he is being brutally questioned by the police, and he understands that racism makes truth irrelevant in their treatment of him, Easy still insists throughout the interview on his right to understanding. Even as he is being released, he demands, “‘I wanna know what's goin' on’” (75). And during his interview with the powerful figure behind the investigation, he presses for full disclosure: “‘What I need is for you to help me understand what's happening’” (116). In the violent world Easy has entered, knowledge has utility value as both a means of self-protection and as saleable information, yet Easy's quest for information contradicts the first option in his encounter with the police and replaces the second in his interview with his employer.
This pattern of excessive knowledge is conflated in Easy's observations before one of the climactic episodes of the novel:
It was a simple ranch-style house, not large. There were no outside lights on, except on the front porch, so I couldn't make out the color. I wanted to know what color the house was. I wanted to know what made jets fly and how long sharks lived. There was a lot I wanted to know before I died.
The quotation structures a characteristic shift from pragmatic description of the style and size of the house, which could aid the detective in his dangerous investigation of it, to aesthetic curiosity about its color, to philosophical inquiry about the nature of reality as an ultimate goal evident in his final comment: “There was a lot I wanted to know before I died.”
Easy's education is, however, focused on one key issue: the meaning of violence. It is, after all, the violence of war that introduced new access to power, but Easy, despite his ironic nickname, understands the connection between violence and power as a difficult concept. His instruction begins when Albright and Easy share “plain old man-talk” (22) about the experience of war. Albright differentiates between the two of them on the basis of their tolerance of slaughter: “‘You lived with it because you knew it was the war that forced you to do it. … But the only thing that you have to remember … is that some of us can kill with no more trouble than drinking a glass of bourbon’” (23). In contrast to the amoral threat implied by Albright, his second white mentor, Mr. Carter, surprises Easy by casually revealing the weaknesses everyone else hides: “I could tell he didn't have the fear or contempt that most people had when they dealt with me.” This unique reaction, Easy concludes, is the result of an unconscious racism supported by enormous wealth: “Todd Carter was so rich that he didn't have to think of me in human terms. He could tell me anything” (119).
In Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence, Rollo May describes the manifestations of power in terms of its types and levels. He restricts the category of violent aggression to the desperate means employed by those who do not have access to more effective power. But Mosley's fiction epitomizes a more subtle reading of the degrees and kinds of violence itself. As Easy learns in Devil in a Blue Dress, the white wealthy classes employ two types of violence. Albright's direct threat of disinterested destruction is related to May's designation of “manipulative” power as the direct control of one person by another. Mr. Carter operates through what May designates “exploitative” power, the total control over others that “presupposes” without having to reveal “violence or threat of violence” toward victims who are allowed “no choice or spontaneity” (104-05). Carter's wealth underwrites power so vast that it may imply rather than invoke its underlying source.
Weaker men may employ what May defines as “competitive” power, “the power against another” which is characterized by one person “going up,” not so much because of what he is or does, “but because his opponent goes down” (107). Competitive violence is exhibited by Joppy, a former boxer who represents raw, mindless force: “His big draw was the violence he brought to the ring” (7). Although he is ostensibly Easy's friend, Joppy is revealed as a murderer who crudely and directly pursues only his own self-aggrandizement. Mouse, Easy's best friend and protector, epitomizes a skillful violence aroused when loyalties or interests are threatened. At its most altruistic, this kind of violence is related to May's positive category, “nutrient” power, because it may use aggression for rather than against another, but Mouse's aggression is also brutally self-serving. Mouse's complicated violence represents a potential the detective, himself “a trained killer,” both accepts and wishes to reject.
The types of violence practiced by Joppy and Mouse suggest the restriction of black power to defensive reaction in a white world of superior control. Easy's war experience has, however, introduced him to another kind of violence, the opportunity to demonstrate male competence through a unified struggle against a common enemy. But although Easy joined the military expecting to share in the American pride advertised “in the papers and the newsreels” (97), he quickly discovered the reality of a segregated army:
I was in a black division but all the officers were white. I was trained how to kill men but white men weren't anxious to see a gun in my hands. They didn't want to see me spill white blood. They said we didn't have the discipline or the minds for a war effort, but they were really scared we'd get the kind of freedom that death-dealing brings.
Disturbed by white imputations of stupidity and cowardice during his racial restriction to a desk job at the rear, Easy eventually volunteered for the invasion of Normandy and later the Battle of the Bulge. And while there was constant racial hostility in the ranks, there was also the possibility of establishing mutual “respect.” “I never minded that those white boys hated me,” he explains, “but if they didn't respect me I was ready to fight” (98).
Easy experience the male contest as an occasion for the assertion of respect, but Easy's tale problematizes violence. Although during the war Easy “killed [his] share” of white people (94), he tries to reject aggression. He remains deeply agitated by a murder he once witnessed by Mouse, his childhood buddy. In fact, during the course of his investigations in this novel Easy, although frequently beaten, does not strike back. Instead, it is Mouse who takes bloody vengeance on Easy's enemies. The opposing moral positions enacted by Easy and Mouse, his alter ego, signify the novel's deep ambivalence about the expedient of black masculine violence.
The doubling around the practice of violence is also a feature of the related theme of knowledge about violence. During times of intense danger, Easy is visited by the counsel of “the voice,” a vernacular source of wisdom which seems to originate in the black communal instinct for masculine survival. During his first battle, the untried soldier threatened by a sniper hears a voice tell him to “‘get off yo' butt and kill that motherfucker. … Even if he lets yo' live you be scared the rest of your life’” (98). Sometimes, however, the voice cautions wisdom instead of violence: “‘Bide yo' time, Easy. Don't do nuthin' that you don't have to do. Just bide yo' time and take advantage whenever you can’” (97). “When the voice speaks, I listen,” Easy explains. “He just tells me how it is if I want to survive. Survive like a man” (99).
Unlike Devil in a Blue Dress, white hard-boiled detective fiction characteristically presents clear meanings of violence. For example, in the climactic scene of The Big Sleep, Carmen Sternwood lures Marlowe into a place that suggests the industrial destruction of an American Eden. When she begins to hiss as she tries to shoot him, violence is personified as a deceptively tempting but deeply corrupt practice Marlowe tries to avoid. On the other hand, a tough guy like Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer uses violence crudely and often, to demonstrate his virility and to advance, according to John G. Cawelti, a “primitive right-wing” attack “against some of the central principles of American democracy” (183).
But the murders in Devil in a Blue Dress fit into neither Chandler's characteristic pattern of condemnation nor Spillane's of approbation. After Easy has slept with his friend's girl to extract some crucial information, she is killed by Joppy. Certainly, Coretta's death provides the plot with an innocent victim to motivate the detective's quest, but thematically it also repudiates Easy's irresponsible sexuality, a central attribute of Spillane's hard-boiled character, as a source of authentic male power. Daphne Monet's off-stage murder of a white purveyor of little boys to homosexual clients, although it establishes her guilt in the solution of the mystery, does not symbolize the corruption that Marlowe's encounter with Carmen, who deteriorates from a beautiful girl into a drooling epileptic, evinces. “‘I pulled the trigger, he died,’” Daphne explains. “‘But he killed himself really’” (202).
Mouse's murder of Joppy serves as a central instance of moral incertitude. As Easy observes it, Mouse's violence solicits a disturbing combination of both rejection and acceptance:
He turned casually to his right and shot Joppy in the groin. Joppy's eyes opened wide and he started crying like a seal. He rocked back and forth trying to grab the wound but the wires held him to the chair. After a few seconds Mouse leveled the pistol and shot him in the head. One moment Joppy had two bulging eyes, then his left eye was just a bloody, ragged hole. The force of the second shot threw him to the floor; spasms went through his legs and feet for minutes afterward. I felt cold then Joppy had been my friend but I'd seen too many men die and I cared for Coretta, too.
In his rhetorical study of fictional violence, Deadly Musings, Michael Kowalewski notes in analyzing a selection from Moby-Dick the “terrifying contrast between intimacy and brutality” which inscribes both a sense of the “unexpected delicacy of life that can be so easily broken” and authorial “uneasiness” about the content of his own description (12). Similarly, in this passage the “casual” control of the killer provides an emotional contrast to the graphic brutality emphasized by the animal comparison and the horrifying physical details. Mouse's actions, meant to scare Daphne into giving him the money she has stolen, are calculatedly vicious and morally inexcusable, an implication reinforced by the revelation a short time later of the gratuitous murder of Frank Green. Yet despite his own “uneasy” ambivalence, indicated by images of his uncomfortable physical response in both passages, Easy comes to terms with Mouse's crimes. “It was murder and I had to swallow it,” he reflects, upon learning about the second death (205). The fulsome intensity of the description of Joppy's murder is charged with its narrator's resistance to his own moral capitulation, and the rhetorical contrasts in the depiction of Joppy's death emphasize Easy's characteristic vacillation about the ethical implications of violence. One source of this uncertainty may reside in the intimate location of Joppy's first wound, which is not only shocking but symbolically significant: Violence, it appears, is a vital determinant of the loss or maintenance of manhood.
As Easy's series of mentors and doubles suggest, violence is ambiguously connected with broader issues of the achievement of black manhood. In the Easy Rawlins series, Odell Jones, Easy's most important mentor, enacts a nonviolent means to the agency and esteem necessary to black masculine identity. A churchgoer, a homeowner who works as a janitor and takes pleasure in the black culture of John's Bar, and a sometime father to Easy, he is a source of knowledge about the black community. And when, in a subsequent novel, Easy misuses this information during an investigation that results in the death of Odell's pastor, the older man abandons his young friend despite the fact that, in the Houston neighborhood they both emigrated from, Odell had taken the orphaned Ezekiel Rawlins into his home and cared for him as a son. Odell's ideal of principled security influences Easy's deep attachment to his house:
I loved going home. Maybe it was that I was raised in 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.
The house, like other aspects of the novel, operates paradoxically, as at once an idyllic retreat from modern urban violence and as the motive for Easy's participation in it. He accepts the detective assignment as a means of paying the mortgage after losing his factory job. Mosley does not treat middle-class values with the contempt of Malcolm X; instead, they embody a desire for “respect” and “freedom” that must be defended, even with violence.10
Of Easy's violent recurrent nightmares about Mouse, perhaps the most telling is one in which Mouse tries to draw him away from “the largest fire fight” in history by insisting that “‘there ain't no reason t'die in no white man's war,’” a charge Easy counters by declaring, “‘But I'm fighting for freedom’” (193). Black manhood in this novel is an effect of “respect” and “freedom” worth fighting for. But although Easy's concept of respect emerges from participation in military violence, freedom is developed through the practice of detection.
The possibility of freedom emerges through Easy's detective experience as (1) economic independence, (2) personal autonomy, and (3) the abrogation of restrictive categories of self-definition. Half of Daphne's stolen money gives Easy financial security: “I had two years worth of salary buried in the back yard,” he explains, “and I was free” (212). The actual work of detecting—which in this novel moves beyond the interpretation of situations to the manipulation of circumstances to produce predictable objectives—results in a new capacity for control. “I had a feeling of great joy as I walked away from Ricardo's,” Easy remarks. “I don't know how to say it exactly. It was as if for the first time in my life I was doing something on my own terms. Nobody was telling me what to do. I was acting on my own” (124).
Perhaps the most important concept of freedom taught through the process of detection in Devil in a Blue Dress is deconstructive. Easy's experience with Daphne Monet, the enigmatic woman at the center of the plot, annuls the categories through which his world is organized. Although she presents herself as a white woman in a black world, she is finally revealed as both white and black. In the love scene between Daphne and Easy, she begins by bathing him so gently he recalls “his mother's death back when I was only eight” (180), yet she talks more obscenely than the coarsest of men. Daphne functions at once as a mother and a lover, and her actions suggest the stereotypically masculine as well as the feminine. Although she lures Easy by promising to “‘tell you everything you need to know’” (171), he never manages “to know [her] at all personally” (180), and when Easy tries to read her for clues as to the mystery of her racial identity, he is thwarted: “I looked at her to see the truth. But it wasn't there” (200). “Daphne was like a chameleon lizard,” Easy concludes. “She changed for her man. If he was a mild white man who was afraid to complain to the waiter, she'd pull his head to her bosom and pat him. If he was a poor black man who had soaked up pain and rage for a lifetime she washed his wounds with a rough rag and licked his blood till it staunched” (183).
Daphne is the very figure of enigma. Her white self, Daphne Monet, is an invented persona which imagines a father who made love to her out of an appreciation of her essential nature, but this belief is contradicted by the incestuous violation she actually experienced as Ruby Green, a little girl of mixed blood. In this doubled character, Mosley reworks the recurrent motif of the “tragic mulatto” through the hard-boiled convention of the ambiguous woman. From nineteenth-century slave narratives through the modern novel, the white features of a black female character have guaranteed her abuse at the hands of white men and often provoked her isolation from the black community, a situation that frequently resulted in insanity. She therefore traditionally elicits, according to Valerie Babb, sympathy for “lack of racial identification” (33).11 Daphne, however, although disturbed, is clearly not a figure of pathos. Instead of testifying to the necessity of maintaining the purity of the races, she suggests the power released through violations of the various social and sexual taboos she represents. In addition to confusing racial certainties, the heterosexual relationship between Daphne and Easy is shadowed by the homosexuality inherent in her masculine characteristics and the oedipal violation suggested by her maternal behavior. What Easy searches for—and finds in Daphne—is the transgression of the status quo. His identity as both a black and as a man are open to modification: She “was like a door that had been closed all my life; a door that all of a sudden flung wide and let me in” (182).
The plot reveals Daphne as a murderer, which explains Easy's ultimate rejection of her (“Daphne Monet was death herself. I was glad that she was leaving” ) but fails to account for the depth of his conflicting attraction. In the typical noir plot, the detective is drawn to the beautiful temptress whom he finally repudiates as the quintessence of the violent corruption of the world that has shaped her. Easy's ambivalence is, however, related to Daphne's more complex thematic function. As the register of semiotic negation, herself an unclassifiable term, she destabilizes the hierarchical oppositions which both constrain and support Easy as a black man. His love affair with her as a white woman rejects sexually imposed restriction based on an ideology of white superiority, but, at the same time, because this episode invokes the generic convention of the tough-guy hero's sexual potency, it raises questions about an ideology of masculine dominance. Daphne's anarchic potential, her personification of radical freedom, attracts Easy when it threatens white entitlement, but terrifies him when it imperils male privilege.12
Unlike the traditional white hard-boiled detective who seeks to rejuvenate a transcendent system, Mosley's black detective must experience the pain and the possibility of the fundamental disorder that produces new social arrangements. This key difference is evident in a comparison between Chandler's and Mosley's treatments of the knighthood motif which is the signature characteristic of Philip Marlowe, the “common man” as “hero,” who treads “mean streets” as “a man of honor” (Chandler, qtd. in Haycraft 237). In the first pages of The Big Sleep, when Marlowe spots the “stained-glass romance” of a knight's ineffectual rescue of a helpless maiden that decorates the Sternwood mansion, he wryly observes “that if I lived in that house I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying” (4). Just as the king is assisted by the medieval knight in Chandler's 1939 novel, Sternwood, the failing and wealthy patriarch, relies on the loyalty and potency of the detective hero. Marlowe's detective code derives from two principles of fealty—loyalty to the client and loyalty to the law—which turn out to be the same thing: perpetuation of the decrepit paternal codes of privilege that it is the duty of the knightly hero to rehabilitate.
In The Pursuit of Crime, Porter argues that the American detective fiction developed in the 1920s merely added the conventions of literary realism and vernacular language to the enduring social ideology of the British pattern: “In representing crime and its punishment … detective novels invariably project the image of a given social order and the implied value system that helps sustain it” without “any recognition that the law itself … is problematic” (121).
Although Easy Rawlins would like to be a conventionally moral man, his recognition of the problematic nature of “law” as it is applied to black citizens separates him from his white counterpart. Marlowe bases his detective code on adherence to a fixed system of justice: “Once outside the law you're all the way outside,” he declares (194). Rawlins questions its existence: “I thought it was wrong for a man to be murdered, and in a more perfect world, I felt the killer should be brought to justice. But I didn't believe there was justice for Negroes” (121).
In the final paragraphs of the novel, Easy submits his own evolving ethics to the wisdom of his moral mentor:
“If you know a man is wrong, I mean, if he did somethin' bad but you don't turn him in to the law because he's you're friend, do you think that's right?”
“All you got are your friends, Easy.”
“But then what if you know somebody else who did something wrong but not so bad as the first man, but you turn this other guy in?”
“I guess you figure that other guy got ahold of some bad luck.”
Thus, the most important father/mentor in the novel rejects the premise of “law” for the practice of loyalty which adjusts to changing circumstances.
In Black Betty (1994), when Easy Rawlins notices that the “suits of armor designed for tiny little men” lining the hallway of a wealthy home contrast with “two larger metal figures; maybe six feet each,” he is informed that, after the plague killed off much of the population of medieval Europe, those remaining could enjoy a better diet. As a result they grew bigger, “and some of the biggest put on armor” (307). The imagery of knighthood here is not a signal of preeminent principles that must be reconstituted. Instead, its artifacts suggest contingent episodes in a history of shifting power relations.
Such a perspective, according to Michel Foucault in summary lectures collected in Power/Knowledge, alters the source of knowledge. Traditional power relations, Foucault theorizes, descend from a system of social authority invested in a sovereign ruler to Enlightenment principles of rights enforced through a structure of laws. But during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries another complex of power relations evolved based on the diverse negotiations of everyday life. To discover this kind of power without political center—most apparent where it “surmounts the rules of right” and is sometimes expressed in “violent forms” (96)—is a good definition of the practice of the black detection of Easy Rawlins.
Much is learned in Devil in a Blue Dress at institutional locations of the black community which are pointedly extra-legal. The cultural hub, for example, is “John's Place”:
a speakeasy before they repealed prohibition. But by 1948 we had legitimate bars all over L.A. John liked the speakeasy business though, and he had so much trouble with the law that City Hall wouldn't have given him a license to drive, much less to sell liquor. So John kept paying off the police and running an illegal nightclub through the back door of a little market at the corner of Central Avenue and Eighty-ninth Place.
In Devil in a Blue Dress, Mouse worries about Easy's penchant for the pursuit of knowledge: “‘You learn stuff and you be thinkin' like white men be thinkin'’” (205), but Mouse is wrong.13 Easy's practice of detection is in fact a study of modern power where it is most available, in its diverse forms of violent intervention which subvert the white sovereign system that operates through the enforcement of law rather than through the provision of “freedom.” The new form of power defined by Foucault is polymorphously productive: It circulates within the body politic to construct, define, destroy, and alter its own effects. Although the contemplation of local instances of power is the modus operandi of all hard-boiled detectives, the Foucauldian result of Easy's study is the freedom to define, reject, or alter the conditions violence discloses. Like the classic detective novel, Devil in a Blue Dress includes a recitation of the solution, but Easy's public explanation completely redefines actual events to signify a contingent relationship with all established truths. The possibility of such freedom is further supported by discursive effects of the novel: the variety of definitions of power supplied by Easy's series of mentors, the implication of alternatives in the characterological doubling of Daphne and between Easy and Mouse, the deconstructive solution of the central enigma, and the moral ambivalence of the detective hero.
In his epistemological history of crime and punishment, Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault charts the transition from the spectacle of criminality represented by the scaffold to the interiorization of social control in the classic detective novel: “The great murders had become the quiet game of the well-behaved” (69). But the energetic revision of the detective genre by Mosley shakes things up. By reintroducing a focus on criminal violence as a source of knowledge, he effectively frames potent questions about the meaning of relations of power affecting African American communities at an historical point of possible change. In addition, he reconnects the black themes of power and knowledge in renovated forms that depart significantly from classic and hard-boiled detective stories and several other ideological narratives, including the anti-detective novel and the folk tradition of the bad black man, as well as the conventions of white hard-boiled detection.
The anti-detective novels of writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Pynchon studied by Stefano Tani substitute for the conservative politics of the mystery genre “the decentering and chaotic admission of … non-solution” (40). In place of irresolution, however, the detective works of Mosley seek alternative conclusions. And in contradiction to avant-garde futility, they acknowledge the potency of what Fox Butterfield calls “the black bad man” hero (63). Not “romanticized as noble outlaws,” brutal folk characters like Stagolee and Railroad Bill mirrored the turn-of-the-century frustration of African Americans caught in a system of “disenfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, and lynching” as expressions of anger without hope of social redemption (64). Butterfield argues that this popular figure has inspired the use of aggression to acquire a specious “respect” in place of genuine power, particularly in black urban communities influenced by the heritage of a Southern “code of honor” operating through violence. In stories that acknowledge its influence, Mosley both invokes and demotes this mythic and social pattern. Although Mouse's practice of violence is definitely portrayed in Mosley's works as an important aspect of black masculine identity, the redistribution of detective prerogatives in Devil in a Blue Dress argues not only that knowledge is possible, but that it is a more reliable means to power than is violence. In Mosley's works knowledge consists of the examination of the conditions of power in order to recognize opportunities for authority within the dominant system and to discover sources of potency within the black community. As David Glover and Cora Kaplan define it, the central issue of detection is the recognition of such conditions: “What's at stake in both the old and new hard-boiled is who the people are and what their relation to the public spaces of speech and action may be” (215).
Just as the treatment of violence in Devil in a Blue Dress does not endorse the black ideology of futile “respect,” it also rejects a white ideology of violence that defines white dominance. Bethany Ogdon characterizes white hard-boiled fiction as presenting the “urban, multiracial” environment in terms of “demeaning descriptions of other people,” “their perverted psychologies,” their “diseased physiognomies,” and their “destroyed bodies” as “a series of negations” that “construct a mirror against which a hyper-masculine identity appears” (76). This structuring of the white detective's specious stability and masculine identity against the stylistic degradation of the racial other as a source of fantasized male power points up the clear distinction Easy Rawlins represents. Mosley's choice of the so-called “noir” genre is not without irony. The violence Rawlins encounters does not create a racialized other, and his unstable identity is negotiated through violent knowledge in pursuit of contingent power that develops out of economic opportunity and discursive authority. Critic Robert Crooks credits Mosley's challenge to the ideology inscribed in conventional hard-boiled fiction but faults him for failing to represent a leftist solution. But solution of neither the crimes of the narrative nor the problems of society is the real objective in Mosley's crime fiction: Articulating the full, complex power relations which Easy uncovers as issues of white and black violence and enacts through ambivalence is the special accomplishment of the Rawlins series. In Devil in a Blue Dress and the other Easy Rawlins novels, Walter Mosley represents rather than resolves complicated historical issues of the multiracial society Easy uncomfortably inhabits. In this accomplishment, Mosley is addressing an ambiguity about violence Jerry H. Bryant traces in Victims and Heroes: Racial Violence in the African American Novel. Black narrative is traditionally unable to univocally endorse the ideology of constructive violence because it must pose the redemptive vision of black male counterviolence against the overwhelming reality of white brutality. Easy, however, detects an alternative understanding of violence as knowledge, a source of contingent rather than ideological black power.
See Stein; Freese; Mason; and Crooks.
The series of Easy Rawlins mysteries are generally set in the various decades of his life and incidentally introduce issues of black relations to changing historical contexts. For example, A Red Death places Easy in the 1950s in the context of the FBI's pursuit of communists. A Little Yellow Dog, set in the 1960s, introduces the escalating violence in criminal communities because of more prevalent drug traffic. The series includes Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), A Red Death (1991), White Butterfly (1992), Black Betty (1994), A Little Yellow Dog (1996), and Gone Fishin' (1997), which provides the early background to the otherwise chronological series.
See Cawelti chs. 6-7.
See Takaki (17-35) for a discussion of Douglass's special relation to issues of violence.
I am arguing that Douglass's assumption of the role of educated speaker utilizes one of the modes of power of his historical period. For an alternative reading that sees this fashioning of role as acquiescence to patterns of white masculine identity, see Yarborough.
“It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities,” Washington preached in his “Atlanta Exposition Address” in 1895 (36).
As Mosley stated in an interview, one the most important objectives in the Easy Rawlins mystery series is historical and political recuperation: “The books are really about Black life in Los Angeles” and recreate “historical events which Black people have been edited out of” (“Other Side” 11).
Chester Himes's Harlem Crime Stories series, begun in 1965 with Cotton Comes to Harlem, also includes The Heat's On,Run Man Run,All Shot Up,The Big Gold Dream,The Crazy Kill,The Real Cool Killers,A Rage in Harlem, and Blind Man with a Pistol. The humorous cynicism of Himes's detective figures, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, contrasts with Easy Rawlins's more naive pursuit of knowledge.
This theme of the pursuit of knowledge is noted by the author as a characteristic preoccupation of his interest in his black male characters: “I especially love black men and the way we deal with life in America, the way that we understand, the way that we pass through things” (Sherman 35).
See also Mason's discussion of the house as a symbol of the “extreme fluidity” of Easy's complex negotiations of racialized codes (178-79). Joppy, too, as the proprietor of the butcher's bar where the action begins, is connected to the motif of ownership.
Babb identifies the tragic mulatto as a figure of “cross-racial interaction” in works by both black and white authors: William Wells Brown's Clotel; or The President's Daughter, Charles W. Chestnutt's The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories and The Marrow of Tradition, James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson (142n13).
In Are We Not Men?: Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity, Philip Brian Harper argues that the literary motif of the tragic mulatta reflects the predicament of black masculinity: “The passer returns to ‘the race’; she accedes to proper ‘femininity.’ Yet what the passing narrative seems to rule out of bounds—definitionally unassimilable to socially normative codes—is the very possibility of black masculinity, which is thus the real casualty of this cultural intervention” (126). This tropic negotiation of black manhood (which is also an object of Easy's detection) accounts for Daphne's role in the text, Easy's confusion, and his rejection of her.
Although Stein interprets Mouse as representative of a black segregationist position in contrast to Easy, who stands for integration (202), it is, in fact, Mouse who is essentially allied with the white world. His murders of Joppy and Frank remind Easy of the manipulative violence represented by Dewitt Albright.
Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Butterfield, Fox. All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the Tradition of American Violence. New York: Knopf, 1995
Bryant, Jerry H. Victims and Heroes: Racial Violence in the African American Novel. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1997.
Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.
Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. 1939. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Crooks, Robert. “From the Far Side of the Frontier: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley.” College Literature 22.3 (1994); 68-89.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 1845. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: NAL, 1987. 241-331.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979.
———. “Two Lectures.” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon. Trans. Colin Gordon, et al. New York: Pantheon, 1980, 78-108.
Freese, Peter. The Ethnic Detective: Chester Himes, Harry Kemelman, Tony Hillerman. Arbeiten zur Amerikanistik 10. Essen: Blaue Eule, 1992.
Glover, David, and Cora Kaplan. “Guns in the House of Culture?: Crime Fiction and the Politics of the Popular.” Cultural Studies. Ed. Lawrence Grossberg, et al. New York: Routledge, 1992. 213-24.
Harper, Philip Brian. Are We Not Men?: Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
Haycraft, Howard, ed. The Art of the Mystery Story. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1946.
Himes, Chester. If He Hollers Let Him Go. 1945. New York: Thunder's Mouth P. 1986.
Kowalewski, Michael. Deadly Musings: Violence and Verbal Form in American Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.
Lesser, Wendy. Pictures at an Execution: An Inquiry into the Subject of Murder. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
Mason, Theodore O., Jr. “Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins: The Detective and Afro-American Fiction.” Kenyon Review 14.4 (1992): 173-83.
May, Rollo. Power and Innocence: The Search for the Sources of Violence. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
Mosley, Walter. Black Betty. New York: Pocket Books, 1994.
———. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York: Pocket Books, 1990.
———. Gone Fishin'. Baltimore: Serpent's Tail, 1997.
———. A Little Yellow Dog. New York: Pocket Books, 1996.
———. “On the Other Side of Those Mean Streets.” Interview with Charles L. P. Silet. Armchair Detective 26.4 (1993): 8-19.
———. A Red Death. New York: Pocket Books, 1991.
———. White Butterfly. New York: Pocket Books, 1992.
Ogdon, Bethany. “Hard-Boiled Ideology.” Critical Quarterly 34.1 (1992): 71-87.
Ong, Walter J. Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
Porter, Dennis. The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.
Sherman, Charlotte Watson. “Walter Mosley on the Black Male Hero.” American Visions 10.4 (1995): 34-37.
Stein, Thomas Michael. “The Ethnic Vision in Walter Mosley's Crime Fiction.” Amerika Studien/American Studies (Amsterdam) 39.2 (1994): 197-212.
Takaki, Ronald. Violence in the Black Imagination: Essays and Documents. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
Tani, Stefano. The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.
Washington, Booker T. “Atlanta Exposition Address.” 1895. Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison's “Invisible Man.” Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Boston: Bedford Books, 1995, 33-38.
X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 1964. New York: Ballantine, 1992.
Yarborough, Richard. “Race, Violence, and Manhood: The Masculine Ideal in Frederick Douglass's The Heroic Slave.” Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts. Ed. Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1997. 159-84.
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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 Watts is paradise. Then the beautiful Elana Love enters his store and brings with her more trouble than Pans has ever seen—enough trouble that Pans knows his only hope is his friend Fearless Jones. A former soldier, Jones is riveting new creation. He's man of both principle and action with an innate sense of justice—and as his name makes clear, he's afraid of nothing. The novel rips along with a hunt for the girl and a race among competing factions to find a missing bond that's the key to a fortune. For the black characters it's a desperate struggle to stay alive in a white world where the deck is stacked. One sly reference tells the reader we're still in the same world and time inhabited by Easy Rawlins, and that Fearless and Mouse are equally “bad.” But Fearless is also a knight-errant and hopefully destined for further adventures as fine as this one.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
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 both “full-bad” men. How are they alike and different?
[Mosley]: Well, Mouse is a sociopath really. He's amoral. Fearless is the opposite; he's completely moral. But it brings them to just about to the same place. Neither of them are afraid of anything.
The post-WWII era seems to have a real importance in your fiction. Do you see that as a particularly seminal time for America or African Americans?
That's an interesting question. I think that it's an important time that hasn't gotten much play in the media. Back then, black people migrated in great droves out of the south, went north and tried to create a new life for themselves. And those migrations haven't been talked about very much in history, much less in fiction. And so I decided I would take on Los Angeles with the Easy Rawlins series.
In your best known series, the Easy Rawlins books, many readers find Ray Alexander, Mouse, the most intriguing character. And in Gone Fishin', the first book, he seems to be the principal character. How does Easy end up with top billing?
Well, I think that Easy is a richer character because people can identify with him at more levels. Mouse is loved because of his heroic qualities, but the central character of a book has to have a broader range of possibilities emotionally and intellectually.
You used the term heroic rather than mythic?
Yeah. A hero can save you. And Mouse is the kind of guy that people would love to have save them.
You had a different working title for the Fearless Jones book—Messenger for the Divine?
That was a long time ago. I loved that title. The problem was that I had just finished writing the book Blue Light which was somewhere between science fiction and speculative fiction, and a book with the title Messenger of the Divine might be misconstrued. But I loved that title.
In 1997 you took Gone Fishin' to Black Classic Press, and that was a great success for them. Do you have any other projects planned with them?
Paul [publisher W. Paul Coates] and I have become very good friends, and he's growing the press now. At some point when he's ready I'd love to give him another book. It's a great time for small presses because the big publishing houses have gotten so big that it's not financially feasible for them to work with smaller mid-list books. It's a great opening for smaller presses, a perfect time. Readers haven't become less eclectic simply because publishers and bookstores have.
Since the publication of Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990, you've published a number of mysteries, short stories, a mainstream novel, a science fiction novel, a non-fiction work and a screenplay. What are you working on during your stay at the MacDowell Colony?
A play. It's basically about relations between blacks, especially between black men and black women.
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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 entertaining new Walter Mosley mystery, Fearless Jones—not one featuring his popular hero Easy Rawlins, but a new series narrator: the far-from-fearless Paris Minton.
The normally mild-mannered Mr. Minton runs a bookshop—or tries to—in a place in time remote enough to seem exotic even to those who lived through it.
In Fearless Jones' L.A., people are drinking Royal Crown Cola, and the jukebox at the after-hours club is booming with singles by Big Joe Turner and duets by Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. A dollar buys six packs of Pall Mall cigarettes, and for ＄13,000 a man can purchase two houses and a new Ford Crown Victoria.
It's also a world in which minority citizens are often harassed and suppressed—by prejudice, by the powers that be, by crude force. Here the resourceful Minton, an inveterate reader, opens a used-book shop in a Watts storefront on Central Avenue, selling “everything from Tolstoy to Batman, from Richard Wright to Popular Mechanics.” In his rented store, Paris can indulge all day in what he most loves to do: reading. “For a solid three months I was the happiest man in L.A.,” Paris records. “But then Love walked in the door.”
Elana Love, that is; a beautiful young woman who asks Minton's help in fleeing a brutish thug. In a matter of hours, Paris has his car and cash stolen and sees his business burned to the ground. But asking the police for help doesn't seem wise. As Paris says, “A black man has to think twice before calling the cops in Watts,” adding, “[t]he best cop I ever saw was the cop who wasn't there.”
Fortunately, Paris has a stalwart friend he can turn to—Fearless Jones, who's everything the anxious and diminutive Minton isn't: tall, powerfully built, effectively intuitive, and who (in Jones' own words) “ain't scared ‘a nuthin’ on God's blue Earth.”
Minton and Jones negotiate an environment in which many citizens live surreptitiously, between the cracks, in a parallel society with its own morality and rules for survival. Landlords discreetly rent out illicit apartments in condemned structures. A bail bondsman has an office under another man's name in a building housing an illegal poultry distributor, where the bondsman's clients sit “listening to the gentle clucking of hens through the heating vents.” In such a neighborhood, truth is a commodity as valuable as water or electricity, to be dispensed as carefully as cash. Lies are an alternate currency in this barter economy.
“I knew she was lying,” Paris says of Love. “Why would she tell me the truth?” He sees that her truth is caught up in lies and fears: “I didn't believe a word she said, but that didn't matter.”
Paris himself uses falsehood as an all-purpose tool. “I'm good at lying,” he states, not without pride. Knocking on the doors of strangers, his first thought is what kind of story to tell. When he thinks it necessary, he even holds back truth from those closest to him—and they understand. “I could see in Fearless's eyes that he knew I was lying,” Paris notes, after telling his best buddy an improvisation on the facts, “but he didn't press it. That's the kind of friends we were.”
Fearless has his own “philosophy” about lying: “It's okay as long as you ain't hurtin nobody. … Matter 'a fact a lotta times a lie is better'n the truth when the whole thing come out.”
Finding truth is fundamental to sorting out mysteries, though. Eventually, even these devious investigators must have real facts. “All you're sayin' is what isn't and what's lies and what didn't happen,” Paris taunts a corrupt reverend. “What me and my friend here need to know is what is.”
That's when things get truly dicey.
The puzzle Fearless and Paris must solve involves a stolen bearer bond, a fortune plundered by Nazis and a kindly Jewish couple in East L.A. who fall victim to evil schemers. For Paris, exposure to this couple, Sol and Fanny, brings dawning awareness of human ties that transcend color and neighborhood: “She was just an old white woman, that's what I thought,” he says of the wife, Fanny, “but she reminded me of the women in my own family.” Fearless, larger than Paris in every way but intellect, vows that the man who ruined this couple will pay “with blood and money, his freedom or his life. It ain't about money, it's about the man who destroyed Fanny and Sol.”
As the reader might expect of this accomplished author, Mosley tells a compelling tale, at once swift and subtle, thoughtful and full of action. His brisk descriptions and aphorisms are as vivid as ever. “The sergeant was a blocky-looking specimen,” Paris observes of a policeman. “He was like the first draft of a drawing in one of the art lesson books I sold in my store.” Bail bondsman Milo Sweet is sketched in quick strokes: “He sat in a haze of mentholated cigarette smoke, smiling like a king bug in a child's nightmare.”
And there's this 6-foot-tall intruder: “The man standing there was a study in blunt. His hairless head was big and meaty. The dark features might not have been naturally ugly, but they had been battered by a lifetime of hard knocks. … He was a volcano crushed down into just about man size. His clothes were festive, a red Hawaiian shirt and light blue pants. The outfit was ridiculous, like a calico bow on an English bulldog.”
Fearless Jones' historic L.A. sometimes becomes a violently surrealistic, Chester Himes-like place, where a seemingly dead man sits up straight, a live-looking body slumps like a marionette with strings cut and a man shouts for someone to find his shot-off “baby finger”—not to make himself whole but for the street-smart reason that “that finger got my fingerprint on it.”
The apparent echoes of Himes are homages, reference points in the context of Mosley's strong, appealing and more humanistic vision of a city half a century ago: “I saw East L.A. with its carob and magnolia trees, its unpaved sidewalks, and tiny homes flocked with children. Pontiacs and Fords and Studebakers drove slowly toward their goals. Brown- and white-skinned people made their way.”
When Paris Minton and Fearless Jones made their way to the highly satisfying end of their memorable adventure, this reader was cheering the winning debut of a well-nigh irresistible team.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1797
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 not merely great crime novels; they are works of literature, with all the intricacy and insight that implies.
The tricky question of genre has marked the career of Walter Mosley since the publication of his first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, in 1990. Mosley, after all, is commonly known as a mystery writer whose reluctant sleuth. Easy Rawlins, inhabits the same desolate, sun-bleached southern California as Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, sharing much of the isolation and moral ambiguity of their hard-boiled universe. At the same time, Mosley has never been a traditional crime novelist; rather, he writes to serve a cultural agenda, and for him the mystery is less a whodunit than a vehicle for exploring a way of life. On the most basic level this exploration is racial: Easy is a black man in a white man's world, and his every action requires a delicate dance with convention, with the rigid social order of L.A. in the 1940s, 1950, and early 1960s—a landscape characterized by racist cops and housing covenants and the small, daily degradations of living on the color line. Still more significant, though, is the way that, read together, the Rawlins books—Devil in a Blue Dress,A Red Death,White Butterfly,Black Betty,A Little Yellow Dog—compose a sprawling novel of manners about twentieth-century African-American Los Angeles that owes as much to authors like Dickens and Zola as it does to the aesthetics of noir. Here Mosley portrays a community largely overlooked in the city's literature, a shadow territory with its own code of ethics. This expansive vision has everything to do with Easy: an enigmatic figure, he is less a detective than a favor broker, a private citizen who gets involved in cases out of personal connection, and knows hundreds of people at all levels of income, education, and class. Easy spends time in bars, and with criminals and con men, but he also understands the quieter pleasures of domestic life. Characters and situations carry over from volume to volume, imbuing the whole sequence with an uncommon three-dimensionality, a vivid air of consequence.
For all the artfulness of the Rawlins saga, Mosley has always seemed a bit ambivalent about the enterprise, as if wary of being pigeonholed. As early as 1995 he branched out from the series with a blues novel. R. L.'s Dream, which addressed the Robert Johnson myth, with mixed results. The following year, after the publication of A Little Yellow Dog, he began an extended sabbatical from crime writing, and then returned in 2001 with the stand-alone mystery Fearless Jones. In the interim Mosley bounced all over the literary map, writing two volumes of science fiction, two collections of stories about an ex-con named Socrates Fortlow, and a nonfiction book; he also issued his previously unreleased first novel, Gone Fishin' (in which Easy Rawlins first appears, as a teenager), through the small Baltimore-based Black Classic Press. His choice to focus on these books, which share with the Rawlins novels a sense of social vision, leaves the distinct impression of an author in search of something he's not sure that mysteries can offer: a context in which to be considered on his own terms. “We need to stop other people from ghettoizing our work,” Mosley said in 1997, “and we need to stop ourselves. Mystery writers think of their readers as fans, but if a man reads your book, he's a reader. By the same token, I'm not a mystery writer, I'm a writer.” That's a telling comment, not least because it reveals how deeply the idea of genre continues to define the way we think about literary work. It's ironic that Mosley should even have to make this statement, because if his varied career proves anything, it's just how spurious such distinctions are.
All these issues—social commentary, authorial identity, the relationship between genre fiction and literature—come together in Bad Boy Brawly Brown, the sixth Easy Rawlins mystery. It's an excellent book, perhaps the best in the series (although I remain partial to A Red Death, with its bleak, corrosive portrait of Los Angeles in the McCarthy era), and it reads as if Mosley had never stepped away at all. This is owing primarily to the novel's set-up: taking place in early 1964, only three months after the conclusion of A Little Yellow Dog, it plunges us back into Easy's life with barely a caesura, picking up a host of conflicts that the previous installment left unresolved. Mostly those conflicts derive from Easy's personal life, beginning with the death of his best friend and protector. Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, for which Easy feels a great responsibility. There are also his two adopted children. Jesus and Feather, and the woman, Bonnie Shay, with whom the three of them live—a makeshift family that has developed throughout the Rawlins novels, providing both a grounding and a counterpoint to the world outside. That's a key motif in these pages, one to which Mosley returns repeatedly, and it's important because despite the novels' continuity, the L.A. Easy must now navigate has inexorably changed. A Little Yellow Dog closes with the Kennedy assassination, America's iconic loss of innocence; Bad Boy Brawly Brown opens in a brand new era, with black activists preaching self-determination while the white elite uses every tool at its disposal to subvert them, including secret police-intelligence squads. “There's blood boiling under the surface of Watts,” a police detective tells Easy early in the novel, in a whisper of the fires to come.
The fact that, unlike Mosley's characters, we confront these matters with historical hindsight is one of the subtle pleasures of the Rawlins books. This also gives the work its weight. History, after all, offers a way for Mosley to transcend the boundaries of plot and genre and tell his stories on a broader scale. Thus, although Easy's search for a young man who has run away to join the militant Urban Revolutionary Party may keep us turning pages, more momentous is what Easy's investigation reveals about the black community's struggle for autonomy and dignity—a struggle mirrored in the detective's life as well. Easy, too, is something of a runaway; he leaves Watts to buy a house in mostly white, mostly middle-class West Los Angeles and gives up the “economy of trading favors” for a job as head custodian at Sojourner Truth Junior High School. To his chagrin, however, he can never separate himself completely. Something always draws him back. Ever since Devil in a Blue Dress. Easy has been the quintessential man in the middle, part of his neighborhood but able to step outside it, a secret businessman (he quietly owns two small apartment buildings) who can't escape the street. In Bad Boy Brawly Brown such tensions are only heightened by the sense that for both Easy and the larger culture, things have reached a turning point. Mosley makes this explicit early in the novel, when, in the midst of a stakeout, Easy studies for a building supervisor's exam. He reflects.
Studying made me feel like I still had a foot in the workaday world that Feather needed me to be a part of. She needed every day to be the same as the day before and something to say when her friends and teachers asked what her daddy did for a living. I became that man for a couple of hours while waiting for night to come on.
This moment reverberates because of the depth of Easy's personality, his complexity, his obliqueness, our inability to pin him down. He is pulled by conflicting desires, conflicting obligations; like most of us, he understands that what he ought to do and what he wants to do are not always the same. At forty-four, with a family and a mortgage, he knows he's too old to be chasing hoodlums, but he can't deny the attraction—the way that in the throes of an investigation all his burdens fade away. This need for escape is only magnified by his guilt over Mouse, an emotion Mosley weaves through the story in the form of regrets, memories, longings, the seething turmoil of surviving a friend. Among the most unexpected aspects of the novel, in fact, is that even in death Mouse's presence lingers, like a sin Easy cannot expiate. “You let me die,” Mouse reminds him in a dream—a scene that exposes Easy's demons without letting him off the book.
Oddly, the complexity that marks Easy is often missing from Mosley's non-mystery fiction; Socrates Fortlow and Soupspoon Wise (the protagonist of R. L.'s Dream), for instance, are far less nuanced, their likes and dislikes and motivations far easier to read. In the end, though, that just reaffirms the irrelevance of genre as a way of categorizing literary work. Easy is flawed: he makes mistakes and operates against his own self-interest much of the time. “It felt good to be lying again,” he tells us. “It was as if I disappeared behind a cloud of black ink like the squid or cuttlefish.” But he also recognizes his limitations—and has no illusions about who he is. When a woman asks if she can trust him, he responds, “You can't … How could you? You don't know me. You don't know who I know.” It's a consummate Easy moment, ambiguous yet honest, in which the detective comes off not as a hero but, instead, as a human being.
Crime fiction ultimately represents nothing if not a grand contrivance—an approximation, rather than a reflection, of life. In the world outside mysteries, private citizens don't go chasing after killers and missing persons; they run and hide, or call the police, or fail to get involved at all. For Mosley, however, the highly stylized nature of the genre's conventions is less important than their ability to open a window on an elaborately imagined world. This is the intention of all literature, regardless of format, and with the Easy Rawlins novels Mosley has found a framework to make lasting points about the things that affect us most—the dynamics of character and interaction, and the difficulty of making one's way in the world.
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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 acknowledge. Mosley's benchmark is the awareness that dawned on his late father, LeRoy Mosley, as a World War II soldier. Once this black member of the “greatest” generation learned under fire that he was an American with as much on the line as any white man over there, he accepted the responsibility of making America be America to him and his progeny over here.
“While my father wanted to stand side by side with the physical and economic development of white America, I want to be in spiritual harmony with the rest of the world,” says the son. This book is all the more moving for its efficient, elegantly spare and dispassionate language—typical Mosleyan prose. “How can we, black people of America, who have suffered so much under the iron heel of progress, stand back and allow people to starve and die as silently and unheralded as our own ancestors did on those slave ships so many years ago? How can we, the great defenders of liberty, allow our sweat and blood, taxes and minds to be bent toward the subjugation of the rest of the world?” Mosley is advocating the globalization of real freedom and democracy, which he distinguishes from amoral corporate capitalism. He claims a right of just regular folks like LeRoy Mosley to decide the priorities and conditions for our collective human life on this nicked and wobbly big, blue marble: “After all, Bush is our proxy, not our dictator.”
The writer suggests forming small, grassroots groups in which each member chooses a specific stream of the information deluge to follow, since no one person can absorb it all. This division might be geographic or by topic—for example, the construction industry or our Africa policy. These groups would meet regularly to pool their information, deliberate, propose and act in the variety of ways human ingenuity can devise to make its will felt.
Mosley also offers a starter set of core values, rules of fair treatment that I personally would like to live by. Mosley's fourth rule is poignant: “I cannot expect to know peace if war rides forward under my flag and with my consent.” Two must-read chapters, “Can the Victims of History Become the Heroes of the Future?” and “Our Silence,” address the fear, shame and battered self-esteem African Americans must shed to act with resolve.
Walter Mosley invites us to honor our peculiar American experience by leading bewildered and frightened Americans into the global human community. What Next marks the second time the bankable Mr. Mosley has a book with a black publishing house, stimulated, according to Paul Coates, publisher of the Black Classic Press, by criticism that successful black authors were not helping to build an African American publishing industry. What Next is a heart-stirring, step-by-step explanation of African American powers and responsibilities to fathers, mothers, daughters and sons. Readers will experience the love and reverence Walter Mosley has crafted into this encouragement affirmation of all humanity.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 243
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 Angeles with his usual unerring accuracy, but a somewhat different dynamic drives his heroes. When Fearless drags the reluctant Paris into helping him look for Kit Mitchell (aka the Watermelon Man), their quest turns quickly murderous. Timid bookworm Paris gets caught in a deadly game of hide-and-seek whose players deal in lead, money and lies and include members of the fractured and fractious family of millionaire black businesswoman Winifred L. Fine. Neither Fearless nor Paris is sure who or what the various seekers are after—the missing Mitchell, a fabulous emerald pendant or a family diary—only that it's valued more than the lives lost trying to find it. A desire to aid his friend Fearless initially motivates Paris, but his journey becomes a voyage of self-discovery. While Paris possesses a narrative voice that's more literate and middle-class than that of the street-smart Easy, it should still resonate with Mosley's legions of fans.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1205
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 stakes before tapping its potential. James Ellroy knew this, but he's chasing bigger game now. Walter Mosley knows this, and he can't escape it.
Fear Itself, Mosley's ninth excursion into this postwar maelstrom, picks up where Fearless Jones left off, and if you think there's nothing more to be said, think again. Paris Minton is just getting his life resettled. His bookstore on Florence Avenue is doing as well as his store on Central did, the one that burned to the ground in Fearless Jones, and the bloody shootout that closed that book is merely a detail for keeping continuity. Then someone knocks on the door. It's the middle of the night, an invitation to trouble, and once Tristan—Fearless—Jones steps in, there's no escaping the pull of the story.
When Mosley first arrived on the scene with Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990, he went on a fast roll with Easy Rawlins and his buddy, Mouse. But when Mouse died in an alley ambush in 1996 in A Little Yellow Dog, Mosley lost the friendship and solidarity that coursed beneath the surface of those earlier novels. Five years later that dynamic resurfaced to mixed reviews in Fearless Jones. Paris and Fearless were more casual, less hard-boiled than Easy and Mouse. One reviewer likened them to Laurel and Hardy. If it was unfair then, it's all the more so today. The troubles in Fear Itself are bad, and that's all for the better.
Kit Mitchell, a hustler with a silver cap in his smile, is missing, and everyone wants to find him. All the roads in this part of town lead to Fearless, and if not Fearless, then Paris will do, but the problem is neither knows where Kit is. Some bring violence, most bring cash and, as each ups the ante on the other, a green pall settles upon Paris and Fearless and catches the attention of every skip tracer, extortionist and two-bit thug who haunts the flatlands and the hilltops of the city. It's a picture of remorseless greed and ugly desperation.
Why exactly Kit—and soon enough, another man, Bartholomew Perry—is a mystery to Paris and Fearless, but they're not complaining. “That's three thousand that two poor black men have collected, and we haven't done a thing but ask questions and survive the answers,” quips Paris, even as Fearless and he find themselves caught in a web that Mosley cinches tighter with each page.
Fired upon, lied to and seduced, they discover bodies long dead, a scheme to pry corner lots from landowners for the development of gas stations and a book—an ancient and valuable book—chronicling one family's African heritage and enslavement.
Mosley keeps a firm grip on the pacing of his story. There is in his writing an effortless simplicity—contrast the more baroque stylings of Michael Connelly—that complements the complexity of the events that, told from Paris' perspective, unfold with a dose of common street sense and a certain literariness. (Paris is, after all, his bookstore's best customer.)
One evening when he is alone, waiting for Fearless to call, he picks up a folio of photographs of New York by Weegee. “Weegee,” he tells us, “treated the whole city as if it were his backyard. … He roamed from Park Avenue to Harlem with his camera, mostly at night, getting behind all of the lies we tell and showing just how ugly people can be when no one else is around.”
So too with Mosley, who, skipping Weegee-like from Watts to the Hollywood Hills and back, introduces us to the richest black woman in Los Angeles in a meeting stunningly Chandler-esque (think of Marlowe and Gen. Sternwood in The Big Sleep) and then to one of the richest white men. By the end we've come a long distance from the opening scene, when Paris and Fearless sit and talk, listening to the moths and other insects bouncing off the kitchen screen of Paris' illegal add-on in South-Central.
Paris' and Fearless' dreams of prosperity grow all the more sweet and dangerous the closer they come to tracking down Kit's whereabouts and ultimately the pornographer, murderer and blackmailer who lurks at the center of the action. To say, however, that the story of Paris and Fearless is a story of loyalty is to miss its broader dimensions. Sure, Fearless once saved Paris' life in a dark alley in San Francisco, but that's old news. Fearless' greatest strength is to call out the strength in other people, and in a world of get-rich-quick, pie-in-the-sky hopes and dreams, this is not such a bad thing. By the end, Paris confronts his own capacity for fearlessness, violence and betrayal. As they say, if you own a gun, you have to be prepared to use it.
Just as important is to take a step back before trying to compare Fear Itself with the earlier novels and to realize that Mosley is a painter of a time and a place. Each book from the first to the last is a brush stroke filling in the larger canvas of Los Angeles that he's been painting for some 13 years, and we're richer for it.
The centerpiece of Fear Itself is a lovely sequence, a short story of sorts that comes fresh out of a shooting at the bail bondsman's and the cops' third degree. Paris rents a room in a boardinghouse where Kit once lived. The boarders share a common bath, and dinner—chicken, dumplings, collard greens, creamed corn and peach cobbler—is served at 6. It's as loving a picture of African American life in this city 50 years ago as you'll find.
“There was a lot of talking and jocularity at the table. It was the friendliness of strangers. The only thing we all had in common was our race,” says Paris. Then, looking around the table, he realizes that, by coming to California, the boarders “had to dig out from under nearly a century of white oppression. Everybody, black and white, was a potential enemy. People that had been so mired in poverty that that's all they could expect. And so when faced with hope, many became distant and watchful.”
We've seen pictures of black and white, even brown and white Los Angeles from the '40s and '50s, but seldom from the inside out. In Fear Itself, Mosley taps into this world and shows us a city where opportunity is less than it seems and violence a measure of frustration. The sad thing is it's a picture of a city not unlike Los Angeles today.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268
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.
[Zaleski]: Why were you chosen to host the National Book Awards?
[Mosley]: I didn't really ask. Neil Baldwin [executive director of the National Book Foundation] called me. I'm a literary writer who writes in genre often, unapologetically—not trying to say that I've gone beyond the genre, not trying to make the genre belong to some kind of literary convention. If I write a mystery, it's a mystery. If I write science fiction, it's science fiction. So I would be a good choice to introduce [Stephen] King.
What do you mean by “a literary writer who writes in genre”?
It's possible for everybody in any genre, including the literary one, to write a bad book. It's also possible to write a book that is entertaining but has no deeper political, philosophical or linguistic qualities. But it can be a wonderful story. There are tons of space cowboy novels like that, that you read for the adventure of it or the romance of it. Westerns, mysteries, romance novels. But books that have a deeper resonance with the language or the culture—those are the kind of books that I'd call literary. “Literary” is not a scientific term, but when you pay attention to it, you'll find that some people's writing takes you to another level.
Yet almost all great writing in the history of the West was at one time popular fiction. You start with Homer, you go through the Greek tragedies, you come up to books that don't really have writers, like Beowulf and Gilgamesh, and then you have Shakespeare and more modern writers like Dickens, Twain, Balzac, Alexander Dumas. I think a lot of criticism I've heard about King is that he is a popular writer, and some literary writers get unhappy at that.
You were born of a Jewish mother and a black father. So much of your work is identified with being black. Why do you identify with being black rather than white?
There actually are quite a few Jewish characters sprinkled throughout the novels. But I'm an American, and in America until very recently and still today, you're black if any part of you is not white. If your baby toe on your left foot is black, then you're black. My life has been structured around that fact, and not by me. When I was 16, I needed a passport and I was with my Jewish mother and they wouldn't give me the passport. I had to go home and get my father and bring him in, in order to get the passport. That's kind of a metaphor, isn't it?
When I was a kid, there weren't a whole bunch of black writers who were writing stories which, though having certain political aspects, were entertainments. I love Richard Wright, I love James Baldwin, but a lot of times the characters in these books start to have a political agenda kind of stitched into their characters. With Easy [Rawlins, Mosley's best-known and best-selling series hero], it's very hard to tell that. With Mouse [Rawlins's dangerous acquaintance], it's impossible to tell that. Even with Blakey [protagonist of The Man in My Basement].
A white guy locked into a black guy's basement sounds political to me.
There's no question that it's a political novel, but it's a story first. And it's a book about characters, and I was very happy to be able to do it. It's easy being a writer if you don't get published much or very deeply. When there are certain expectations from your publisher and your audience, to be able to turn around and write a book like The Man in My Basement. … When I'm writing, ideas come to me. Writing this book wasn't a problem. It was exciting, it was fun.
What idea came to you first?
I had the idea that the best thing you can do for a black man is to have a white man stuck in his basement. My writing: I start with the first sentence, and I discover the book as I go along. A man locked in the basement. And they're going to have an intellectual argument. One could call it a literary novel, but it's actually an intellectual novel.
The most difficult thing about writing this book—it's not all that difficult to write intellectual, philosophical or literary novels. There's a kind of a form. But I don't like most of them, because I don't like the way language is used. I don't like when you start talking about something in New York in 2003, and then you start talking about the East River when mastodons roamed. But if you get rid of the pretentiousness, that language, all you have left is the story. Then you can still write a novel of ideas. And that becomes really, really, really difficult. This is a novel about ideas and a novel about the world, and how the world works for different people.
The world as described by Anniston Bennet [the power-broker locked in Blakey's basement] is very dark—there are people pulling strings that affect millions of lives.
I know that if I had a billion dollars and very few rules governing me, and I had somebody in my life who I loved, who needed a kidney, there would be a way to buy one. On the front page of the New York Times today, it was reported that somebody sold a child—in this case, for a television set. I can understand how somebody could say, “You have 12 kids and you ain't got no money and you can't feed those kids, but I know a guy who will give ＄100,000 for a baby. You have a baby, and the baby's probably going to die, but your other 11 children will live.” What are you going to do?
I gave a talk the other day in Chicago, and one of the things I said was that every person in the room has on their body some piece of clothing that was sweated over by a slave, or at least by somebody in a sweatshop. That we're a society not only of victims but of victimizers. There's no getting away from that. The idea isn't even to wear clothes that no slave sweated over. It's to realize that it's an unavoidable reality in our economy. So when you start making decisions about the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, and this and that, to understand that you yourself are deeply involved in this worldwide economy. Just like Anniston Bennet.
So what does one do?
A good question, “What does one do?” I think it's nearly always—and believe me, I ask it often enough so it's not a criticism—an attempt to abrogate responsibility. The truth is, you have to live with it. The truth is, yes, my shoes were made by slaves. All right. What can I do about that? Well, really, and immediately, nothing. In the long run, maybe a little something, which is what Charles Blakey does.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 345
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 are in the forefront as Mosley abandons action in favor of a volatile, sometimes unspoken dialogue between Charles Blakey and Anniston Bennet. Blakey, descended from a line of free blacks reaching back into 17th-century America, lives alone in the big family house in Sag Harbor. Bennet is a mysterious white man who approaches Blakey with a strange proposition—to be locked up in Blakey's basement—that Blakey comes to accept only reluctantly and with reservations. The magnitude of Bennet's wealth, power and influence becomes apparent gradually, and his quest for punishment and, perhaps, redemption, proves unsettling—to the reader as well as to Blakey, who finds himself trying to understand Bennet as well as trying to recast his own relatively, purposeless life. The shifting power relationship between Bennet and Blakey works nicely, and it is fitting that Blakey's thoughts find expression more in physicality than in contemplation; his involvements with earthy, sensual Bethany and racially proud, sophisticated and educated Narciss reflect differing possibilities. The novel, written in adorned prose that allows the ideas to breathe, will hold readers rapt; it is Mosley's most philosophical novel to date, as he explores guilt, punishment, responsibility and redemption as individual and as social constructs. While it will be difficult for this novel to achieve the kind of audience Mosley's genre fiction does, the author again demonstrates his superior ability to tackle virtually any prose form, and he is to be applauded for creating a rarity, an engaging novel of ideas.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 891
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. L.'s Dream. His newest, The Man in My Basement, falls into the latter category. It also represents Mosley's first excursion into what might be called the Gutbucket Novel of Ideas—the kind of thing Thomas Mann would have written had he ever thought to set a story in a “secluded colored neighborhood” of Sag Harbor, Long Island.
That isn't to say Mosley's characters are idea-driven abstractions. The narrator, a 33-year-old layabout named Charles Blakey, has a mental life all his own, albeit a depressing one. Having lost his job at a local bank after pilfering the till, he's holed up in the family house with ＄15.76 to his name and a supply of cheap booze. That gives him plenty of time to ponder his history as a compulsive liar.
“I've lied all my life,” he recalls. “To my parents and teachers and friends at school. I lied about being sick and not coming in to work, about romantic conquests, my salary, my father's job. I've lied about where I was last night and where I was right then if I was on the phone and no one could see me. I have lied and been called a liar and then lied again to cover other falsehoods.” Into this hotbed of failure and mendacity comes Anniston Bennet, a mysterious WASP who wants to rent Blakey's basement for the summer. At first the narrator rebuffs him. A white face would hardly fit into the neighborhood, and in any case the basement has been accumulating ancestral junk for nearly two centuries. Eventually, financial pressure wears down the cash-strapped protagonist. He accepts Bennet's exorbitant offer of nearly ＄50,000 for 65 days and agrees to fulfill certain conditions for his tenant, who seems to transmit a peculiar combination of guile and transparence: “His blue eyes were a perpetual shock, but there was no wonder or magic in the rest of his face.” The peculiarity, as it turns out, goes way beyond Bennet's features. Once Blakey has emptied out the basement—and discovered that many of the relics are museum-quality antiques—Bennet orders him to assemble a large metal cage in the bare room. There he will spend his summer, a bald hermit in pajama bottoms, doing penance for some unspecified sin. Blakey, for all intents and purposes, will be transformed into his warden.
Blakey goes downstairs each day with food, water and fresh reading material. (The prisoner, an old-school autodidact, intends to read the complete 11-volume Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant.) Blakey also initiates a series of dialogues with his charge, who's quite literally a captive audience. At this point, the Magic Mountain-like clash of ideas kicks into high gear.
What's the subject of the debate? Bennet soon reveals himself to be a squalid international crook. “With a word from me,” he tells Blakey, “your life could end. Maybe just with a gesture. A sentence could level a city block or blow a jetliner out of the sky. A dream could destroy Philadelphia. A disagreement could throw western Africa into famine for five years.” With such a resume, it's no wonder he makes the case for evil as a necessary expedient. His interlocutor, meanwhile, tries to hold firm to his own rather blurred conception of right and wrong. He also finds himself drawn into Bennet's psychological orbit. When the prisoner asks Blakey whether he's ever killed anybody, this career dissembler bridles, panics and offers a strange confession of his own: “Bennet's question was the deepest contact that I had ever had with another human being.” Clearly Mosley is restaging a timeless philosophical debate. Just as clearly, he's erecting a narrative structure so schematic it threatens to crush the story beneath it. Black and white, rich and poor, power and impotence—the oppositions are too neat, too easy and so is Bennet's transformation into a source of paradoxical wisdom. In the real world, those blue eyes and bloody hands would require a lot more in the way of redemption.
The problem is further compounded by Mosley's prose, which has little of the colloquial zing you find in the Easy Rawlins novels. Perhaps he thought this Socratic smack-down called for a plainer style—that slang and epistemology didn't mix. To be fair, the dialogue displays some of his familiar verve, as do the peripheral sex scenes. (Mosley isn't one to let good and evil get in the way of a little soft-core gratification.) Still, Blakey's travails have an airless quality to them, as though he, too, were trapped in a basement, starved for oxygen and natural light. In a metaphorical sense, of course, that's exactly the case. But it doesn't absolve the author of his duty to breathe a little more life into these notes from the underground.