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Never Outgunned

Walter Mosley
Photo by Christopher Gardner

Walter Mosley encompasses the anger and ecstasy of black literature

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

GUSTAVE FLAUBERT, the great 19th-century French novelist, was once asked how he could write so realistically about the thoughts and feelings of his most famous character. "Because I am Madame Bovary," Flaubert replied. The answer is supposed to have shocked the considerably less sexually tolerant Paris of his day. Still, it may be a bit easier to find a provincial, bourgeois young woman somewhere inside the urbane, well-traveled surgeon's son Flaubert than it is to find Easy Rawlins in Walter Mosley.

Forget Denzel Washington's prettied-up portrayal of Rawlins in the movie version of Devil in a Blue Dress. The hero of the bestselling mystery series, as Mosley writes him, is a break-rock country transplant to Los Angeles' big-city streets, a large man who is a pounding, ham-fisted fighter when aroused; a man who eschews violence in his moments of reflection but who busts ass with the best of them when someone takes a shot at him.

"I could have broken his neck," Easy muses about a young white man who foolishly confronts him in Devil. "I could have put out his eyes or broken all of his fingers. But instead I held my breath. Five of his friends were headed toward us. While they were coming on, not yet organized or together, I could have killed all of them, too. What did they know about violence? I could have crushed their windpipes one by one and they couldn't have done a thing to stop me. They couldn't even run fast enough to escape me. I was a killing machine."

Racial anger simmers right under Easy's surface. Sitting in a police holding cell in Devil in a Blue Dress, just about boiling over after having been beaten by two white police detectives during an interrogation, Easy muses, "I sat down in the chair and looked up at the leaves coming in through the window. ... Also coming in through the window was a line of black ants that ran down the side of the wall and around to the other side of the room where the tiny corpse of a mouse was crushed into a corner. I speculated that another prisoner had killed the mouse by stamping it."

After a second beating, in which Easy finally explodes and knocks one of the cops down: "I got back in the chair and counted the leaves again. I followed the ants to the dead mouse again. This time, though, I imagined that I was the convict and that the mouse was officer Mason. I crushed him so that his whole suit was soiled and shapeless in the corner; his eyes came out of his head."

Surely such anger at racism is present in Mosley himself in order for him to write about it so extensively, perhaps the more so because he is the product of an African-American/white Jewish interracial marriage. That's just speculation, of course. If Mosley is angry, he masks it well behind a curtain of reasonable argument. And perhaps it is this dualness in his personality that explains his ability to appeal to both black and white readers alike.

To black readers he is saying: yes, this treatment of African-Americans is wrong, and we're right to be pissed off about it. To white readers he is saying: yes, this treatment of African-Americans is wrong, and there's a way we can end it without the shouting and the violence. But we've got to end it. It is a high-wire act that could only be pulled off by one in whom both the anger and the reasonableness is genuine.

Sharing lunch with Easy's creator at a San Francisco financial district restaurant, or watching him hold court at San Jose State University, one is hard-pressed to find the vein within Mosley that allows him to write so familiarly about race anger and violence and violent people. He is one of those big men who seem to move through the waters of the world with hardly a ripple at all, preferring to make their waves with the strength of their minds rather than the size of their bodies.

What evilness you can detect in him is in a wicked smile as he sets you up for one of his quips or jokes that are long on social commentary and thoughtfulness, short on viciousness and attack. His eyes do double duty: large and soft, they give the impression of windows into a gentle soul; at the same time they roam the room constantly, taking everything in. Where inside Mosley is the Easy Rawlins who can kill and agonize, but then go out and kill again? Where in such a man can you find Mouse Alexander, who skips the agonizing part?

Revolutionary Act

MOSLEY isn't into self-psychoanalysis at the moment. Right now, while he's on the top of his game, he is thinking that, all in all, this is a great time for black literature. "People are writing in an ecstasy of black language and experience," he says.

He concedes that there is a commercial aspect to the large number of African-American writers being published today, an acknowledgment of the post­Terry McMillan boom, when major publishers suddenly discovered the popularity of black-written books.

"But important black writers like Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor and others are being published, too," Mosley points out. Still, given the long history of difficulty black writers have had in getting their books published in the mainstream press, Mosley is cautious. African-American writers "need to go in all directions," he believes, "but at the end, we have to have a place to go." Where? To African-American­owned publishing houses. "Black presses and publishing houses are places where we can be remembered."

Call him a writer/activist who puts his money and his reputation where his mouth is. In 1988, Mosley wrote his first book, a compilation of the East Texas tales he'd heard as a boy from his father. He shopped it around to the usual publishing suspects, with the regular nonsuccess of first-time authors. The book got tossed wherever would-be authors store their unsuccessful first books.

Move forward several years. Mosley is searching around for lead characters to use in a mystery novel he is writing. He decides to resurrect the two East Texas characters from that old first novel: Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins and Raymond (Mouse) Alexander. In hindsight, we all know what a brilliant choice that was.

Move forward again, this time to 1995. Mosley is now a bestselling, award-winning mystery writer attending the Black Publishers Association meeting at the annual American Booksellers Association convention in Chicago. Max Rodriguez, publisher of the Quarterly Black Review of Books, is speaking to the writers, editors and other assembled book people about the need for established African-American writers to give some help to African-American publishing houses.

"It wasn't a challenge or a threat, but if someone shines a light," Mosley says. "I decided right then, 'That's it.' " The "that's it" was the decision to release one of his books through a black publisher. Not a new book, but the original of the Easy Rawlins series: Gone Fishin'. It was a decision that Blanche Richardson of San Francisco/Oakland's Marcus Bookstore calls a "generous and consciously black move" and others are calling a revolutionary act.

Mosley began to research the different black presses and came up with Black Classic Press. At first glance, one cannot fathom what drew Mosley to Black Classic, a small publisher, founded in Baltimore in 1978, that concentrates almost exclusively on reprinting black nonfiction work.

Its list of authors included Yosef ben-Jochannan, Charles L. Blockson, John Henrik Clarke, Eugenia Collier, George L. Jackson and Bobby Seale--familiar enough to literary historians but not your usual "hot list" of black writers. But Black Classic founder and president Paul Coates was at that prophetic '95 Black Publishers meeting in Chicago, and Mosley first connected with him then, and they hit it off.

Part of what makes the Mosley-Coates alliance work is the obvious trust and sincere friendship that has grown between them. "Paul and I are two black men who have come together because of our interests," Mosley says. "Paul has been straightforward with me." The two seem politically and spiritually in synch, an interesting bonding in publishing or in life. The combination turned out to be pure gold. In less than a week after arriving in bookstores, Gone Fishin' was on the Los Angeles Times' bestsellers list.

Mosley talks about the need for the doors of publishing to open wider to allow more blacks and those of other races to enter the business. It is an industry where these groups are historically underrepresented. "It's a complex issue to understand what we should be doing," he says thoughtfully. "We should all be able to share in the success of black writers. But the desire to do this has to be brought to another level. There are a lot of possibilities, but they must be organized."

One of the things Mosley has helped organize is a publishing institute to assist those who are interested in careers in the industry. It will get under way in the fall semester at his graduate alma mater, City College of New York.

Early-Morning Muse

'I DIDN'T START writing until 10 years ago," Mosley says in an answer to an inquiry from someone in the standing-room-only crowd at a reading at Marcus Books in Oakland. But in the decade since he began, Mosley has more than made up for being a relatively slow starter. He has published seven novels and an omnibus of his works.

He writes three hours a day without fail, beginning at 4 in the morning (when asked how he can start writing so early, Mosley replied, "Suppose you were in love with a beautiful woman, and she told you she'd make love with you, but only at 4am? You'd be in the bathroom shaving and showering at 3:30.")

Also, he has many stories to tell. This coming September is the scheduled publication date for Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned: The Socrates Fortlow Stories (about a former convict--another delving into the violent world), and he recently completed the script for a Home Box Office presentation of several of the 14 Fortlow episodes. Mosley will soon begin work on his next Easy Rawlins mystery, Bad Boy Brawley Brown. He is already writing a science-fiction novel that "has a premise not yet proven."

In the end, however, it comes back to Walter Mosley, the seemingly gentle persuader and creator, and his mysterious relationship to the angry, violent Easy Rawlins, his greatest creation (so far).

Perhaps there is less mystery to it than we imagine; Sherlock Holmes would lecture us to look first for the most obvious solution. Perhaps in the recesses of Mosley's mind, he and Easy meet and share a couple of drinks at a South-Central Los Angeles jazz club, and the gentleness and the violence flow like a river between them, and Walter Mosley declares, "I am Easy Rawlins." And Easy? Well, Easy's easy, when he wants to be. He can go along with that.

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From the June 5-11, 1997 issue of Metro

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