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Wising Up Early

Mystery Writer Walter Mosely visits 'Eve's Bayou' and examines childhood and forgiveness

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he rendezvous with noted author and social critic Walter Mosley to see the ethereal coming-of-age story, Eve's Bayou.

Walter Mosley is excited.

In fact, he's kind of amped; drenched, as it were, in a fine post-cinema glow.

Sliding his paper napkin from beneath his silverware, he spreads it out in front of him, as "Your Cheatin' Heart" plays throughout the crammed restaurant.

"This is a movie," Mosely says, indicating the napkin. "Up there on the big screen. This is the way it's done. Just like this. Then along comes a filmmaker like Kasi Lemmons, and ... " He eyes my napkin, still folded neatly before me.

"May I borrow this?" He places the new napkin beside his own, two identical movie screens. "So the filmmaker goes, 'Let's make a movie,' and she puts it up there, and it's like this ... " He folds one corner down, overlapping and sticking out to the side, then folds the alternate corner underneath. "It's the same thing, only from a different angle, a different way of seeing it. Know what I mean?"

Yes I do. It's a matter of perspective, and perspective, as his millions of readers are keenly aware, is a terribly important thing to Walter Mosley.

Mosley is the best-selling author of the masterful Easy Rawlin's mysteries--whodunits told from the point of view of the reluctant African-American detective Rawlins--has fashioned a series of stories that also work as a first-person account of the history of Los Angeles. As seen through the eyes of an increasingly cynical black man, the books begin in the postwar 1940s of Devil in a Blue Dress (made into a 1995 film starring Denzel Washington) and moving toward the turbulent '70s of Little Yellow Dog; and Mosley intends to continue the series, bringing Easy into the 1990s.

A different perspective is at work in his newest book. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (Norton; $23) is an interconnected group of stories featuring Socrates Fortlow, a convicted murderer set free after 27 years, who attempts to come to terms with his own crimes while struggling with the moral and ethical labyrinth of his new life. Intended as a series of morality tales, the book is an insistently probing, philosophical gem, a book about ethics set in a world where standard notions of right and wrong have been blown to hell.

Set in 1960s Louisiana, Eve's Bayou is told from the perspective of young Eve, a fierce force of nature who knows that her father--the local doctor, a charming, roguish Samuel L. Jackson--has been cheating on her mother. A marvelously subtle, beautifully told coming-of-age story, the film begins with Eve's confession, "I was 10-years-old the summer I killed my father." Whether she is guilty or not is unimportant; in Eve's own eyes, she is as guilty as sin.

"It's nice to see something so much from a woman's point of view, so much so that you actually begin to see men the way women might," Mosley observes, eyes dropping back to the two napkins. "I would have been unhappy if the women were seen as some kind of transcendent creatures, their ethereal wonderment only held back by the baseness of these men. But these women all had their own issues going.

"Another thing I really love about this movie," he grins broadly. "She really did kill her father. She didn't think [what she did] was going to kill him. Cuz she's a kid, and kids are like that. Then again, her father helped. He was gonna get killed sooner or later anyway. His luck was going to run out."

Noting my companion's glee, I ask, "But wasn't the thing she did, you know, a horrible thing?"

"No. Nothing kids do is horrible," he replies. "Children can't help it. They didn't decide to be in that world. They didn't decide to be surrounded by a tumult of emotions. It is a parent's job to protect children from the emotions they can't deal with. These parents didn't. How can you blame a child for being who they're being?

"So where do you draw the line?" I wonder. In reference to the new book, I suggest, "The kid that Socrates befriends, Darryl, he's done a fairly heinous thing."

"He's a kid. Socrates forgives him," he says. "But then he says, 'The important thing is that the only way you're going to survive is to understand that you did wrong. To grow up.'

"Eve was very different. I don't think she understood what she was doing, and even if she did, what are going to do? We put the child in this position. What are going to do? I have to forgive her. I have to forgive her.

"The thing that people are so mad at kids about now," Mosley continues, picking at his french fries, "is that they're armed, they're doing drugs, and they're sexually active at 12 and 13 years old. But who's fault is that?"

He pauses to munch on his fries, as the music fades from Aretha's "Respect" to Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces."

"It's like this guy in New York who's been giving all these people AIDS," he says after a moment. "And the response is, 'Well, let's kill him.' I think he did a terrible thing, but at the same time you don't have anybody getting on television, or any parents, going, 'God, we should have given our children condoms, we should have talked to them, should have moved to Hawaii.' Whatever they needed to do to protect their kids, they didn't do. And now they're saying let's get the guy who did it.

"But from my point of view," he shrugs, "we all did it."

"There's the argument," I say, "that everyone has an innate sense of right and wrong, and whether you can get a machine gun easily or not, you know its wrong to use it. So kids should be held responsible for their choices."

"That's not understanding children though," he insists, raising his voice to strengthen the point. "This movie understands children. She wanted her father dead. He'd been cheating on her mother, and he'd hurt her sister. And she also didn't want her father dead. 'I love you, I hate you. I want you alive, I want you dead.' Children are completely victims of this.

"So many people are afraid of the emotions of kids, which is why the kids are acting out. You have to be able to talk. The thing I like about this movie is there was truth in this film, truth about passion inside of a family and how it can go awry if it's not dealt with, taken care of, if the parents don't deprive themselves in some way.

"If you have machine guns for sale, or drugs for sale, or sexual activity from the moment someone is able to have sex, if that's the world your living in, then you have to deal with all these things. But we don't. We don't deal with it."

He grins again. "And that's the way it is until we do."

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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