Monday, December 20, 2010

Walter Mosley: A Little Yellow Dog (1996) and Gone Fishin' (1997)

Of course I had Walter Mosley in mind when I was writing my private little riposte to Doc-X last night. I mean, here's a perfect example of books that take the conventions of a genre, in this case the private eye mystery thriller, and use them as a means of getting at something else entirely. We get at something really important and true about the black experience in America in the 20th century through Easy Rawlins not in spite of the fact that he's a character in a thriller, but precisely because he is. Our understanding of the way private eyes are supposed to act, their relationships with the law and the criminal element, their moral codes, their stance vis-a-vis society, all of this generalized, genre-specific knowledge helps us to further understand Easy Rawlins because we see how he both adheres to and departs from what his genre leads us to expect. And the more we read Easy Rawlins the more we realize that both his adherences to and departures from the model are conditioned by America's racial history.

That's what we see in A Little Yellow Dog (1996), the fifth in the series. By this point (it's 1963), Rawlins has lost all connection with the knight-errant template. He's not even casually a private eye anymore - in fact, he's not self-employed anymore. He's taken a job as a school janitor, and he's trying to make it work, to leave the street behind him. Would Sam Spade do that? Would Sam Spade have to do that? No. And so now we've learned something about the difference between Sam Spade and Easy Rawlins. We know something, too, about the kinds of opportunities that were available to black men in the '60s in L.A., even black men who read Ian Fleming and Emile Zola and Marcus Aurelius. We know something about the kinds of relationships it was possible for such men to have with the police, and how very different those relationships were from those enjoyed by, say, Jake Gittes.

Maybe Mosley could have gotten this far with Easy without making him into a private-eye figure in a thriller-patterned series. Maybe. But then read the sixth book in the series, Gone Fishin' (1997). It's not a thriller. It's a story of Easy Rawlins's youth, of his time with Mouse in Houston. Their back story - their origin story, to put it in superhero terms. There's mystery here with a capital M, as the story involves witches, voodoo, fever dreams, and bayou Brigadoons, but no sleuthing.

And it's not, I'd venture to say, entirely a success. It's an essential entry in the series - for five books Mosley has had Easy alluding to dark secrets in his past, and more than that to the wild and scary ways of Houston and the bayou country from which so many of his L.A. acquaintances hail. East Texas and West Louisiana sort of take on the same resonance in these books that Chinatown does in that movie. Well, here we go back and experience it first-hand.

So as a way of opening up this character and his life experiences, it's effective. And it does a great job of sketching an almost mythic, slightly romanticized vision of life in the black deep South before the War - Mosley doesn't disguise the poverty or violence, but he does allow his descriptions of the milieu to echo Faulkner's lyricism, and his rendering of the journey to remind us of Huckleberry Finn.

But our view of all of this is, in a way, passive. Easy is so young, so naive, and so helpless for so much of the book that, through his eyes, we don't really understand a lot of what's happening to him - even the central murder is left a little ambiguous. And this means that we don't come to quite as deep an understanding of this society as we do of the L.A. of the other installments in the series. There's one exception - through the character of Miss Dixon, Mosley shows us the heartbreaking precariousness of black life in the south, as the death of this one indifferent white landlord manages to destroy the whole town of Pariah, located on her land. We understand how impossible it is to build a life when you don't have access to the money you'd need to buy the land to build it on.

Anyway, as I say, the novel has its strengths. But as a whole it didn't feel as richly detailed, as thoroughly known, as the other books in the series. And who knows why that is - I don't know much about Mosley's life, only what's on Wikipedia, but it may be that he knows L.A. in the '60s a lot better, more personally, than he knows East Texas in the '30s. But I think it's also because the formula of the detective story forces the hero to be out and active, meeting people, putting clues together. That formula is absent in Gone Fishin' - and that's a valid decision, and maybe Easy's passivity here is really what Mosley wanted to explore (his epiphany, after all, is to learn to read).

But you see what I'm driving at, in my characteristically roundabout way: I think it's genre that allowed Mosley to explore black L.A. so well. Absent genre, we don't know black East Texas nearly as well.

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