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Big Easy

Walter Mosley
Christopher Gardner

As a mystery writer, Walter Mosley hasn't got a clue, but his Easy Rawlins novels powerfully evoke both the African-American experience in the South and in South-Central L.A. His true models are not Hammett and Chandler but Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

By Elsie B. Washington and
J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

CONSIDER for a moment the following contradiction. An author comes to great fame because of his mystery writing, yet his mystery plots are the weakest area of his writing--indeed, at their worst, they're appallingly amateurish. Or, alternatively, the contradiction of an African-American writer who can't decide whether his work needs to be validated by a white audience.

Welcome to the complicated, conflicted world of Walter Mosley.

The fact that Mosley, creator of the popular Easy Rawlins detective series, can't put together much of a whodunit in the familiar sense of the word will probably come as something of a surprise to the nation's mystery-book establishment. Mosley is a past president of the Mystery Writers of America, and in 1990, the association selected him for the Shamus Award (one of its highest honors).

Of the five installments to date of the Rawlins series--Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death, White Butterfly, Black Betty and A Little Yellow Dog--one (Devil) was turned into a big-budget movie starring Denzel Washington, and two (Betty and Yellow Dog) made it to the New York Times bestseller list.

Unfortunately, after five tries, Mosley hasn't yet warmed to the task of crafting a satisfying mystery. His idea of building drama is to introduce as many characters as possible as quickly as he can--and then to kill them off with alarming abandon.

It sometimes appears that he has written the whole thing backward. He strews the landscape with seemingly unrelated dead bodies (in A Red Death, for example, a minister, the minister's girlfriend, a Communist Party organizer and one of Easy's apartment tenants) and then gives himself the nearly impossible task of conjuring up a murder scenario that ties this whole motley bunch together. It doesn't work.

While we're at it, Mosley's other great flaw is his depiction of violence. Action scenes in the Easy Rawlins books tend to sound almost like those old dime pulp-fiction novels.

"I saw DeWitt rise up a few feet farther on; he had that pistol leveled at me," Easy recounts in the climactic scene of Devil in a Blue Dress.

"I heard the shot, and something else, something that seemed almost impossible: DeWitt Albright grunted, 'Wha?' Then I saw Mouse! The smoking pistol in his hand! ... More shots exploded. Daphne screamed. I jumped to cover her with my body. Splinters of wood jumped from the wall, and I saw Albright hurl himself through a window at the other side of the room."

The trouble is not with the buildup to the scene or with the event itself, but with the way Mosley wrote it. Playing Mouse, Easy's dangerous friend, in the movie version of the book, Don Cheadle strode deliberately through that same door, pistol in hand, in one of the most explosive rescue scenes in recent movie memory.

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Interview with Walter Mosley.

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Stiletto Prose

SO, THEN, if Walter Mosley isn't much at mystery plots or gunfights, what is the appeal of the Easy Rawlins series? Perhaps part of the interest can be attributed to the fact that both its detective/protagonist and its author are African-American, though that's hardly a groundbreaking event.

Chester Himes was writing black mysteries decades ago, and recently the genre has become increasingly popular for African-American writers, with Barbara Neely, Valerie Wilson Wesley and Terris McMahan Grimes publishing sleuth series of their own.

And there is nothing especially unique about the formula followed by the Easy Rawlins books, which might be described as the "reluctant hero" scenario. Easy "does favors" for people: locating lost husbands or identifying the minor thief who broke into a local store. When he gets around to involvement in murder, it is almost always after being coerced by some government agency or another--usually to get himself out of trouble. And he is always helped out by his sometime-running buddy Mouse Alexander, the proverbial sidekick.

Then what's the big deal about the Rawlins series, and why did President Clinton once take a break from his morning jog to drop in a bookstore and pick up one of the books?

To solve that conundrum, one must go back to the beginning. The Easy Rawlins series did not start out as a mystery series at all, or even as a mystery, but as a little novel called Gone Fishin', written in 1988 but not published until this year. Small and spare as it is, Gone Fishin' is a rare bird, indeed: a first book that soars.

Gone Fishin' is largely based upon the rural Louisiana/East Texas tall tales passed down to Mosley by his father, who grew up in the South and--like Easy--later migrated to Los Angeles. While whites have their Pecos Bill stories and the like, blacks have their Stagger Lee tales: accounts of men legendary with their knives or guns. ("He shot that poor boy so fast," goes one epic prose-poem, "that the bullet went through Billy and broke the bartender's glass.")

The driving force of Gone Fishin' is the diminutive Mouse, who is drawn directly out of the Stagger Lee/bad-ass tradition. Confronting a man about twice his size, Mouse slips a stiletto "maybe just half an inch" in the man's stomach and then, while the dark man's face grows pale, tells him calmly, "You better drop that stick, or I'ma stir the soup, boy."

Absent any mystery plot, Gone Fishin' shows the three elements that are the real key to the success of the Easy Rawlins mysteries: first, the introduction of two of the most interesting characters in American fiction today, Easy and Mouse; second, the fact that Mosley can paint memorable pictures in 10 words or fewer that other authors cannot do in whole volumes; and third, Mosley's ability to bring us into the world of the African-American rural South, whether it is in its original location or transplanted to South-Central Los Angeles.

The heart of the series is Easy's uneasy relationship with Mouse. They function almost as two parts of the same whole, the Jekyll and Hyde of our generation. Killing almost at will throughout all of the books, Mouse is both conscienceless and almost purely violent--surely the very definition of evil.

Although this combination repels Easy, he never abandons his best friend--and broods on the realization that he himself is not much different. After Mouse saves his partner at the end of one of the books, he berates Easy for holding a conversation with his antagonist instead of just shooting him right off.

"You like some stupid cowboy, Easy," Mouse says. "You wanna yell 'Draw!' 'fore you fire. That kinda shit gets ya killed."

"He was right, of course," Easy says to himself, "but that way I convinced myself that I wasn't a murderer."

Mosley is also one of the most successfully word-succinct American writers since Ernest Hemingway. In Gone Fishin', Mouse cajoles/coerces Easy into accompanying him to his rural Texas hometown, where Mouse seeks to retrieve the money stolen from him by his stepfather, Reese Corn. Reese is a man much to be feared, a fact that Mosley manages to convince us of in just five words.

After Mouse and Easy have had their first--extremely unsuccessful--confrontation with Reese, they are retreating from his house through the spooky Texas swamp country in something of a hurry. Nearing sunset, Easy feels himself getting sick and can think only of his own bed, but Mouse wants to find a place to hide, nixing the idea of thrashing on through the gathering dark.

"Reese is good at night," he says. We are left with a chilling image.

South-Central's Faulkner

BUT MOSLEY'S depictions of African-American life are perhaps his best contribution to American fiction, raising him above the Dean Koontzes and Terry McMillans of the world (that is, above writers who are wildly successful commercially but whose work has the lasting power of cotton candy).

Mosley has a keen time/place sense of the Depression-era South and postwar South-Central Los Angeles, taking us (like a Faulkner or a Dickens) into a different world.

In the title episode from Gone Fishin', Mosley reaches down deep into the bayou to re-create one of the most wildly funny fishing scenes ever--and a not-often-seen glimpse into a slice of African-American life where all is not angst:

    Mouse reached under his coat, into the back of his pants, and came out with a long-barreled .41-caliber pistol. ... [T]hen he waded into the water up to his waist. In one hand he had the pistol, and in the other he had some crackers or dry bread that he pulled from his shirt pocket. ... "In the beginnin' God made the heavens an' the lands," Domaque said from behind me. "An' there was darkness in the land and the face of God was on the water." ... Mouse slowly scattered the last of his bread into the pond. Then, carefully and slow, like a stalking cat raising his claws, Mouse brought the pistol over his head. ... When he fired, dozens of mallards and pelicans started from behind the oaks. Dom Jr. let out a yell ... Mouse yelled, "Com'on, Dom! Get yo' sack out here fo' [the fish] get away!"

Mosley's descriptions of post­WWII South-Central Los Angeles are also instructive to those whose view of the region is stuck in the post­Watts Riot era. Mosley gives us an insider's view of the life of the African-American Southerners who flocked to California during and after the war with a deep sense of spiritual, family and community values, with a willingness to work hard and, most important, with jobs to work at.

"I loved going home," Easy explains in Devil. "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. ... The house itself was small. ... The bathroom didn't even have a shower, and the back yard was no larger than a child's rubber pool. But that house meant more to me than any woman I ever knew. I loved her and I was jealous of her and if the bank sent the county marshal to take her from me I might have come at him with a rifle rather than to give her up."

Words as Weapons

BUT ALONG WITH these wonderful depictions of African-American life comes another Mosley complication/contradiction: Just who are these images aimed at, and why?

Taken together, Gone Fishin' and RL's Dream (Mosley's 1995 non-Rawlins, non-mystery novel) show that within the scope of his own writing, Mosley displays the ambivalence that has marked African-American fiction from its beginning: that is, should black writers present black culture as is, without apology, or should black writers' task be to prove that African-American culture is just as good as, or as complex as, or as whatever as, white culture?

Gone Fishin' presents a self-contained African-American community, moving along lines distinctly different from the outside world--and presents it well. It is not the relative absence of white characters in the novel that is significant but the fact that the one white character who does appear is kept in the background.

The novel is reminiscent of the best--almost arrogant--work of Caribbean writers (most notably Maryse Condé), standing on the border of our comfort zones like James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope, beating its chest and shouting, "Here I am!" You must take such literature on its own terms or not at all.

RL's Dream comes from the completely opposite end of the table. Minor-league blues guitarist Soupspoon Wise has lived a rich and interesting life, once playing the Mississippi street-corner and juke-joint circuit with the infamous Robert ("RL") Johnson.

But in his dying days, he feels that his life cannot be validated unless the story is told, on cassette tape, to a white blues historian. "I wanna tell my story," Soupspoon says. "I know stuff now, too. I got somethin' to say."

The motivation or purpose of the historian never comes into question; in fact, he never even appears in the book. Such concern with how white people will view black life--in fact, such concern that the only way for black life to become valid is for white people to validate it--is a throwback to early African-American literature, which was aimed almost exclusively at a white audience.

Most 19th- and early-20th-century African-American literature served as a weapon in the antislavery and civil rights fights--fueled by the need to prove that African-Americans were human beings, loving and laughing and feeling pain like all other human beings, who therefore did not deserve the conditions imposed upon them by slavery-time and post-slavery-time America. From William Wells Brown to Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, to Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, pre-1970s African-American literature was obsessed with the drive to prove that African-Americans were human.

The prototype of this trend was Harlem poet/columnist/fiction writer Langston Hughes. Hughes' published writings were almost a plaintive cry for the recognition of the humanity of African-Americans, directed toward white audiences in a language they could easily accept and understand, such as in Hughes' poem "I, Too":

    I, too, sing America.
    I am the darker brother.
    They send me to eat in the kitchen
    When company comes
    But I laugh
    And grow strong.
    Tomorrow, I'll be at the table
    When company comes.
    Nobody'll dare
    Say to me,
    "Eat in the kitchen,"
    Then.
    Besides,
    They'll see how beautiful I am
    And be ashamed--
    I, too, am America.

Hughes' writing is in sharp contrast to one of his Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, Zora Neale Hurston, who was the sole major exception to the "we're just like you" school. Hurston's work presents a complete and mature Southern black culture, almost defiant in its declaration that its books and stories were taking a black point of view.

"It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G and G Fertilizer works for its support," reads the opening line of Hurston's short story "The Gilded Six-Bits."

Typical of her writing, the story's prose is of a language and image bank familiar to rural African-Americans: "Ah'm a real wife," declares Missie Mae to her husband, "not no dress and breath. Ah might not look lak one, but if you burn me, you won't git a thing but wife ashes."

Hurston was well ahead of her time, the forerunner of post­civil rights black writing, which seems less concerned with showing black life in a good light or even a purposeful light as it is in showing black life in what its authors perceive as a true light: novelists such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, John Edgar Wideman--even Terry McMillan.

Looking for Home

IN MANY WAYS, Walter Mosley represents the great hope and promise of this new generation of African-American writers, much as Hughes and Hurston represented the best and the brightest of an earlier generation. His own work teeters on the bridge between the two of them, undecided as to which path it will follow, and it should come as no mystery that Mosley is currently studying Hughes and Hurston as the two black writers he admires most.

Mosley has shown the ability to write meaningful fiction in a manner that writers like Morrison and Wideman cannot: making it both understandable and salable to a widespread audience. He is a Terry McMillan with something to say.

But though it has earned great accolades so far, Mosley's writing is still an unrealized promise. His craft is not yet perfected, his best work has not yet been done, and one gets the feeling that he is still trolling around either in some South Texas bayou or in New York's East Village, trying to find himself as a person and as a writer.

"There's no way for me to tell the future from this room in Paris," Easy Rawlins says at the end of Gone Fishin'. "All I can do is follow my footsteps, not at all like my father, and go back home."

Easy, at least, knows where home is. Walter Mosley may not, yet, though the search has already left us with some of the most significant writing of our time.

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From the June 5-11, 1997 issue of Metro

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