Saturday, December 11, 2010

Walter Mosley: Black Betty (1994)

Things just keep getting tougher and tougher for Easy Rawlins. And that, my brothers and sisters, seems to be the point.

So, coming to the first book in this series from the film, I was most enthralled by the setting, and the hero: postwar black LA, full of promise, streets mean but still sunstruck, perfect stomping grounds for a hero full of pride and a sense of accomplishment. Ezekiel Rawlins helped defeat the Nazis: surely there was a place for him in the city of angels. And as embodied by Denzel Washington, that confidence shone through: it never blinded Easy to the realities of life in Watts, but it let him master them.

When I opened the second book and found the story jumping forward five years, I was disappointed, most of all because I felt there was much more to be explored and savored in that moment, and in Rawlins as 1948 found him.

Each book so far in the series makes that jump: five years forward for A Red Death, three more years for White Butterfly, and five years again for Black Betty. By now it's pretty clear to me what Mosley is trying to do: he's not content to create a black PI in a perfect noir world. He's out for nothing less than a dissection of the death of the postwar dream for black folk.

It's a painful read, at times; I have a hard time imagining Denzel playing the Easy Rawlins of Black Betty. I'm sure he could, but: the point is, Rawlins by this point is not the smooth, quiet, confident man of thirteen years before, but a man who has seen so much cruelty and malice in the eyes of white LA that he's barely hanging on. And he's angry, eloquently angry: in his internal monologues he pulls no punches in his diagnoses of what's happening to blacks in America, even as Martin Luther King is marching. The Easy Rawlins series started out concerned with a moment of promise; by this point it's clear that it's about broken promises. About betrayal.

And Easy Rawlins is still there.


Of course, these books aren't entirely about Rawlins getting the shit pounded out of him by white cops. There's also sex. More precisely, there's desire.

That theme comes through strongest in this book, and that's part of why I think it's my favorite so far. The title character doesn't appear in the narrative present until the end of the book - Rawlins's job is to find her. But she lives in the descriptions of various characters Rawlins meets, and in his own memories - he knew her as a child in Houston, when she was carnality incarnate.

What Mosley is doing here, I'm guessing, is tapping into an African American archetype every bit as potent as that of Stagger Lee. Black Betty, in Leadbelly's song, is almost an empty signifier - a name, an image, an alliteration, a rhythm, and a series of suggestive, enigmatic commands - "run yonder," "jump steady," "turn around." Could be about a prison train, a whiskey bottle, a gun, or a woman. Could be, but isn't: of course it's about a woman. With a name like that.

Rawlins's search for Black Betty takes on a mythic power, and so when he finally finds her, and has to break her heart, sees her collapsed, helpless, weeping, it just tears the reader up inside.


Yeah, Ram Jam's 1977 version of it is pretty archetypal, too. It rocks. It must be dealt with.

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