Sunday, April 25, 2010

Walter Mosley: Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)

I read for a living, partly; but I don't write about that here. What I write about here is my pleasure reading: reading I do for fun, and/or for personal edification in ways that don't directly relate to my profession.

What I'm looking for when I read. Something to make me think: a book with deep themes or provocative social commentary. Something to make me know more: a book that enlarges my understanding of the world either by its place in literary/social history or its commentary on the human condition. Something to make me feel: a book that moves me aesthetically, maybe even teaches me to appreciate beauty I'd never noticed before. All of these things, sure, but I think what I'm most looking for when I read for pleasure is pleasure, specifically the pleasure of being so hooked on a story, so in love with a character, so sucked in by a fictional world, that I can't put the book down. I'm looking for the literary intoxication that kept me lying on my bed reading sci-fi and fantasy for hours after school when I was a teenager, that I felt the first time I read Murakami Haruki's Norwegian Wood, or the second time I read Lord of the Rings.

I read such a random variety of stuff because no one genre seems to do it for me consistently. When I was a kid all I read was sci-fi and fantasy, but some half-voluntary exposure to Great Lit in my first couple of years of college really jolted me. I can remember struggling through some reading lists during my freshman year, then coming home for the summer and looking forward to curling up with some pulpy fantasy, only to find the series I'd chosen so poorly written I couldn't stomach it. Not fair to the genre, perhaps, but that experience knocked me out of my enchantment with sci-fi and fantasy; ever since, it's been something I've revisited occasionally, but not obsessively.

I read such a random variety of stuff because I'll find that addiction in the strangest of places. I never had the slightest interest in Harry Potter, for example, until a friend invited me to see the first movie; I figured I'd better read the book first and I did, and I was transported - I felt like I was ten again, just discovering the joy of reading. I was one of those who got the last book on publication moment and stayed up all night reading it. ...I had a brief but memorable fling with British naval fiction a few years ago: read the Horatio Hornblower books straight through, thought I'd discovered a masterpiece, then read the Aubrey/Maturin books straight through and knew I'd discovered a masterpiece. Was never in the slightest interested in the Napoleonic era before that. But it rocked my world.

I picked up Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress expecting to be hooked, transported, transfigured. I loved the movie. And I love the whole idea: take the LA noir idea and make it, literally, black. Make Sam Spade a spade. There's an incredible richness in African-American postwar LA to be explored - this is the milieu that produced T-Bone Walker, after all (a Texas transplant, just like Easy Rawlins).

And it's a thriller, a hard-boiled mystery: this is, of all the genres of genre fiction, the one most revered by High Culture types like yours truly. Nerdy academics like me are supposed to get the vapors over Mike Hammer, right?

Maybe that's too much pressure to put on an unassuming thriller: maybe that's why I wasn't as wild about it as I'd expected. I mean, everything you've heard about it is true: it does use the hard-boiled noir format in interesting ways, injecting a dose of realism about race that was previously lacking, and doing it in a way that makes it seem not just natural but inevitable, right. And, to boot, it's a good story, a very readable and suspenseful story about an interesting main character. Easy Rawlins is cool.

But I wasn't as hooked as I'd expected. Not blown away. Not that fifteen-year-old kid helpless in the grip of an overpowering fictional force.

Too bad.

Here's T-Bone Walker doing "West Side Baby." Mosley never mentions Walker, but he's what I heard in my head through the whole book. That urbane sheen over a down-home core; that balance of elegance and grit.