Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Walter Mosley: Six Easy Pieces (2003)

This actually contains seven stories, not six, so the title is a misnomer...or is it?  Actually, I'm going to say it is, and I don't understand quite why it's there.  Yeah, I know that six is the next number after five, and the title is a reference to the film Five Easy Pieces (with Easy taking on a double meaning here, of course).  And the first six stories in the volume were excerpted in simultaneous reprints of the first six Easy Rawlins books.  So was Mosley actually only planning to write six, but then added a seventh for the book, but it was too late to change the title?  I dunno.

So these middle books - A Little Yellow Dog through Six Easy Pieces - in the Easy Rawlins series form an interesting cluster.  In Dog, Easy has settled into a job as a junior high custodian.  That it's beneath a man of his talents and accomplishments goes without saying, but he turns out to be good at it - this is his Candide period, when doing what he can to protect and cultivate young minds is its own reward.  And it provides good stable cover for his unofficial private eyeing, not to mention his under-the-table landlording.  He's got two adopted kids now, and by the end of the book he's in a committed relationship, a common-law marriage, with a sexy Caribbean stewardess named Bonnie.

Domestic bliss is what Easy has now.  Security.  Even a certain measure of prosperity.  But is it a false sense of security?  After all, Easy's still black in a racist city, and he's still an unlicensed p.i., constantly in danger of being sucked into the criminal shadows.  Plus, he's been here before.  Earlier in the series we saw him married, we saw him owning a house, we saw him playing stand-up citizen, and it didn't last.  We can't help but wonder, all through these middle books, if this is a false sense of security, if problems universal or particular are going to take it all away.  It's bliss, but it's precarious.  That's in the background of these middle books.

In the foreground is Easy's relationship to Mouse.  As we've realized by now, Mouse is Mosley's take on the Staggerlee archetype:  he's a badass motherfucker who'll shoot a man over a Stetson hat easy.  In the early books of the series, Mouse isn't much more than Easy's ace in the hole, or his chickens come home to roost.  But in these middle books Mosley explores Mouse's more mythical dimensions, and more importantly what he means to Easy.  What it means for Easy to have a man like Mouse on his side, and then not to have him on his side.

Mouse is, of course, a great destabilizing factor in Easy's life.  "Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in" - and here, as often as not, they's Mouse.  And so as we see Easy blissing out with Bonnie and the kids, puttering around Sojourner Truth Junior High, we like he come to dread Mouse showing up.  So it's kind of a relief when Mouse dies. 

But in his absence, as we discover in Bad Boy Brawly Brown, Easy is forced to confront the fact that it's only been Mouse's shadow over his shoulder that has kept him alive all these years.  That continues in the first stories in Six Easy Pieces.  The idea is that a man like Easy - a black Everyman - couldn't possibly have survived the Jim Crow years without someone like Mouse.  Staggerlee was necessary.  And so in Brawly, Easy finds himself hearing Mouse's voice - he finds that he's internalized Staggerlee.  And that of course forces him to realize that he's conscioned Mouse's violence far more than he'd ever intended.  It's a powerful idea.

Six Easy Pieces was mostly, I think, written concurrently with Brawly - it had to have been, judging by the publication dates.  That might explain why, although it mostly seems to take place after that book, Easy's relationship with the Mouse in his head doesn't have quite the intensity it does in that book.  Gone are the internal debates.  Mouse is no longer the devil sitting on Easy's shoulder.  Instead he's the ghost that haunts black LA - rumors are spreading that Mouse is still alive, and Easy finds he can use those rumors almost as effectively as he could use the real live Mouse. 

All of this plus the serious, non-mystery mythmaking of Gone Fishin', contributes mightily to investing Mouse with some serious subtextual mojo.  And so when he reappears late in this volume, it's almost inevitable that it's going to be anticlimactic.  In fact, his reintroduction is so low-key that you half suspect it's an extended dream of Easy's.  But it's not:  Mouse is back.  And the very anticlimax of his reappearance becomes eery by the time you finish the book.  He's like a bomb that lands but doesn't explode.  You know he's got it in him to wreck Easy's life like never before.  But when?

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