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Where Gumshoes Fear to Tread

One of the few bits of good news for black people to emerge out of the deeply regressive 1990s was Walter Mosley. Amid all the public discourse about dismantling affirmative action and moving on from being black to being something else, Mosley was writing smart, graceful but angry detective novels about segregated L.A. Sure, they were set in decades past, but the veiled-yet-hair-trigger racial enmity, geographic divides and casual violence beneath the palm trees was vintage ‘92. Mosley had a wonderful eye and ear for a city hardly any contemporary writer gets right, including the segregated society that, more so than Hollywood, has formed the warp and woof of L.A.’s eternal-summer soul. Mosley offered up Los Angeles as the big city I‘ve always known but never read about: a frequently treacherous but fundamentally humane place whose opacity is also its abiding mystery, whose points of connection lie in its very distances. Unlike Chandler and other noir-minded L.A. writers, Mosley understood all these contradictions, in part because he himself had absorbed them.

The L.A. Mosley writes about in his grudgingly affectionate way is complicated -- not always the diva or downer of stereotype, although it can be those things, too. Mosley took a broader, less dramatic view and came up with a city that is bigger and more superficially languid than most, but more crucially a place where people eat, sleep and do their business. A mutated frontier sensibility sustains particular dreams -- in last year’s Walkin‘ the Dog, ex-con Socrates Fortlow covets a little suburban comfort above all else -- but the heart of those dreams could beat anywhere. True, L.A. makes the heart beat louder, with its odd mixture of oppression and space implied in Mosley’s descriptions of black neighborhoods in the postwar years, with their small-framed houses glowing with color and great promise. In fact, the violent and unpredictable exploits of gumshoe Easy Rawlins are often secondary, and stand in deliberate contrast, to the sugarplum visions of the L.A. good life that even the most hardened characters hold dear: Easy Rawlins may get slapped around by racist cops, but when he‘s released from the police station he goes home to a place of his own. The mayhem makes the homecoming that much sweeter.

Of course, Mosley has always had a bigger narrative pulsing beneath his stories, one of racism in the newest and most image-conscious of large American cities, and how black characters outfox it or outrun it or challenge it in the 1940s or ’50s or ‘60s. Times and plots change, but the big narrative doesn’t: The real tensions are not in following the whodunit but in whether Easy will hold on to his house, whether the titular Fearless Jones and his pal Paris Minton will get busted for consorting with white Communists, whether Socrates will stay out of prison and maintain his modest job at a grocery store. Mosley regards all this seriously, but not so seriously that his stories become deadening recitations about the hard-knock life in the ghetto, a trap too rarely avoided by other contemporary black writers, both fiction and non-.

For all his social consciousness, Mosley never loses his levity, his scope of imagination or his essential appreciation of the ridiculous -- and what could be more serious and more ridiculous than the constructs of race? In his science-fiction fever dream, Blue Light, a book of frequently astounding lyricism that feels light-years away from Easy Rawlins, one of the most memorable lines is also the most mundane. Little more than halfway through the book, the human expressions of evil and death meet face to face in a climactic moment: Evil is tall, white and skinny; death is short, black and badly in need of a perm touch-up. As he moves in for the kill, death screeches to his enemy, “Die!” Evil sizes up the most feared and rapacious force in the universe and shoots back, “Fuck you, nigger!”

Sometimes race and plot converge in a single line, as in Devil in a Blue Dress, in which the most significant piece of the puzzle proves to be the racial identity -- and all the implications therein -- of its femme fatale. The joke of course is that race is the most insoluble mystery of all, a story without end but with a million possible permutations that Mosley explores with relish, from the notion that an ebony-black woman named Nesta holds within her the light of the world, to the casual terrorism cops wreak in black strongholds like Watts, to the benefaction Fearless and Paris improbably find in a Jewish couple from East L.A. Mosley‘s Los Angeles has the element of surprise that New York or Chicago or the Deep South used up long ago, and that Mosley has always used in his detective fiction to unique effect. Desperate as they get, his Southern-transplant black protagonists -- even Easy’s ultraviolent sidekick Mouse -- discover a reprieve in California living; however bad things get, they can get better. How the reprieve finally plays out is the bottom of the mystery, and Mosley‘s greatest source of enduring suspense.

Mosley the writer has proved restless, and the plot turns of his own career have a suspense of their own. I liked hearing him described as being beyond category, because for once people didn’t mean he was beyond racial category, that canard of the multicultural ‘90s. They meant that he defied expectations. It isn’t easy being a successful pop writer who also qualifies as literary, and it‘s less easy if you’re black. It‘s even less easy if you’re male; the canon of black American literary fiction writers has for years pretty much consisted of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. (Ernest Gaines, thanks to Oprah‘s Book Club, sometimes gets a nod.) To confound things further, Mosley moves from genre to genre, with varying degrees of critical success but with fairly uniform advice that he would be far better off, literarily and otherwise, sticking to Easy Rawlins.

Though Mosley’s debut work of nonfiction last year, Workin‘ on the Chain Gang, was disappointing, I hardly think Mosley the writer should take the Easy way out. It may be true that he’s a more effortless detective-fiction writer than an essayist, but reactions to non-Rawlins books like RL‘s Dream and Blue Light have often been virulent beyond reason -- apparently not only does the reading public like its market niches, it likes its race problems cast in familiar templates (crime and punishment, street justice) by familiar faces. It will be interesting to see what the reaction will be to Futureland, Mosley’s new book and second work of science fiction. In it, he hits on all his signature themes but re-imagines how they might play out 40 years from now.

In the sense that he draws highbrow acclaim at a certain price, Mosley is like playwright August Wilson, another black literary writer whose work is largely inspired by the black common man and his workaday, survivalist experiences. Like Wilson, Mosley is a facile writer with a knack for dialogue; he is also vigilant about mining the deeper truth and poetry of black culture without exploiting it for its hipness quotient or entertainment value -- no small temptation in this age of instant technology and consumer profiles. Mosley deserves our appreciation for largely ignoring those problems, for being the Spike Lee of the publishing world -- taking chances and following visions, however ill-starred, and for speaking out on unspeakable issues like segregation within the publishing industry. He has the conviction of his own stories. My only standing gripe with Mosley is that he abandoned L.A., city of his dreams and ours, for New York years ago. He still writes almost exclusively about us, for which I‘m glad but feel a bit uneasy. When I met him last year during one of his regular visits to L.A., I asked him what prompted the move. “Public transportation,” he said cheerfully. “I got tired of driving.”


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