Thursday, December 9, 2010

Walter Mosley: White Butterfly (1992)

White Butterfly is the third book in Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series. We keep jumping forward five years at a time: this one takes place in 1956, and I just started the fourth book and know that it's 1961 there. Mosley has a program, evidently.

Rawlins is growing in interesting ways. As a narrator, by this stage his ruminations on race relations pull no punches whatsoever, to the point that I at first felt they were a bit too on-the-nose, subtextually speaking. But that's not the best way to think about it: rather, this is a voice Mosley's developing, a consciousness, and why wouldn't he be conscious of the times he's living in and what's driving them?

What we've got in Easy Rawlins by this point is the man who, in Dylan's formulation, is trying to "live outside the law," and who therefore "must be honest." Fair enough - Rawlins does try to live by his own code of honor - but what's also true of the black man trying to live outside the law in 1956 Los Angeles, according to Mosley, is that he must keep himself hidden, and keep himself protected.

Hiding is the theme of this particular installment: not only is the murder he's investigating all about a girl assuming a false identity, but the problems in Rawlins' own life stem from his inability to reveal himself, in all his dimensions, to his wife. Rawlins is a rich man in this book, a property owner - he's living the dream - except that he can't let anybody, not even his wife, know what he owns. The only way to make it work is if he almost completely effaces himself. Invisible Man territory, right?

The protection comes, as it does in the first two books, in the person of Easy's friend from Houston, Raymond Alexander, "Mouse." Here in the third book I finally come to understand Mouse, as a character. He's violent, unpredictable, a good man in a fight, but all too likely to bring that fight to you. He's also full of lust for life, and so full of pride that you just know he'll never back down from anybody.

He is, to give him another name, Stagger Lee. Mosley is, I'm convinced (and I'm a bit embarrassed that it took me three books to figure it out), giving the Stagger Lee myth yet another lease on life with Mouse. How does he fit in? Rawlins hates Mouse as much as he loves him: hates his hair-trigger temper, and his lack of qualms about murder. Wishes he could survive without resort to his violence: but he can't. Mouse is the only way Rawlins can survive outside the law: Mouse is essential. And since living inside the law is an unbearable humiliation...

Again, on one level it's standard private-eye stuff, the knight errant flirting with darker forces. But on another level it's a pattern that comes from deep within African-American cultural traditions. These are serious books.

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