Walter Mosley, Sadly, Deviates From Crime

Workin’ on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History , by Walter Mosley. Library of Contemporary Thought, 118 pages, $16.95.

What’s up with Walter Mosley? Has the master of hard-boiled gone all soft and runny? Has the creator of Easy Rawlins turned his back on the genre that made him famous? Has the desire to be taken for a “serious” writer squeezed all the vitality out of one of America’s most dazzling authors?

Who would blame a writer as talented as Walter Mosley for wanting to escape the pigeonhole of the crime genre? Anyone who reads Mr. Mosley’s latest book.

Workin’ on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History is a tedious, tepid essay on the threat of capitalist oligarchy. It’s a bit like watching Michael Jordan play baseball. On the one hand, you want to say, “Hey, man, follow that dream”; but you also wonder why someone so abundantly gifted would concentrate his energies on something he doesn’t do very well.

There’s nobody in American letters quite like Mr. Mosley. He’s not the first author to take the American crime novel to the black side of town (Chester Himes did it brilliantly, back in the 50’s and 60’s, with novels like Cotton Comes to Harlem ), but Mr. Mosley’s five extraordinary thrillers, all featuring the reluctant private investigator Easy Rawlins and his homicidal homeboy Mouse Alexander, have become a rare crossover commercial success in one of the most thoroughly segregated industries in America: publishing.

Think I’m exaggerating racial bias in the book business? Consider the New York Times best seller list, a purportedly objective sales ranking. Popular black novelists like Omar Tyree and Eric Jerome Dickey can sell tens of thousands of copies of their books in a matter of weeks, numbers good enough to land any white fiction writer on the lower rungs, anyway, of the Times list. But Mr. Tyree and Mr. Dickey sell most of their books to a black readership in black-oriented bookstores–few if any of which are among the 4,000 bookstores polled by The Times . Imagine if box office rankings excluded films that feature a mostly black cast and are watched predominantly by black audiences: People would consider it blatantly racist. Yet no one seems to mind that the Times best seller list is in effect rigged against black authors.

Every once in a while, black female superstars–the Morrisons, McMillans and Walkers of the world–will top the charts. But during the last decade, only two black male novelists consistently made the Times list: E. Lynn Harris and Mr. Mosley.

The mainstream embraced Mr. Mosley with his first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), and he was immediately given a facile media identity: the black Raymond Chandler. True, the first Easy Rawlins mystery is set in a seedy City of Angels in the 1940’s, but Mr. Mosley’s lean, laconic prose is far less mannered than Mr. Chandler’s over-the-top grandiloquence. And easygoing Ezekiel Rawlins–who’s almost always dragged into cases against his will–bears little resemblance to that jaded loner, the private dick Philip Marlowe. Can you picture Marlowe adopting, as Easy does, two L.A. street urchins?

The Easy Rawlins novels–particularly the masterful Black Betty (1994)–offer a kaleidoscopic social history of Los Angeles from the late 40’s to the early 60’s. Mr. Mosley artfully captures the rhythms of black American speech, but his ear for white dialogue, his California rednecks, Jewish Communists and Beverly Hills divas, is just as good. Easy’s sleuthing gives the books their page-flipping momentum; his tortured relationship with the diminutive, rodent-faced Mouse Alexander adds moral complexity. Mouse is Easy’s guardian devil, his trash-talking, ass-kicking, ultraviolent, amoral id. Easy rarely fires a gun. Whenever any killing needs doing, he usually calls on Mouse–who’s only too eager to oblige. Easy depends on Mouse and he lives in terror of him, especially after a secret affair with Mouse’s lady, Etta Mae.

In 1996, Mr. Mosley published A Little Yellow Dog . If it isn’t the best book of the series, it’s certainly the funniest and the most emotionally involving. Easy and Mouse are both trying to go straight, working on the custodial staff of a junior high school. Naturally, they manage to get tangled up in a few murders. But Mouse, now in his early 40’s, has suddenly acquired a conscience and begins to wonder if he has killed one man too many. On the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Mouse takes two bullets to the chest. When last seen, a comatose Mouse is being kidnapped from his hospital bed by a pistol-wielding Etta Mae. Easy Rawlins doesn’t know if his partner is dead or alive.

And Mr. Mosley’s readers still don’t know: The Easy Rawlins series came to an abrupt halt.

The author’s next book, Gone Fishin’ (1997), was an Easy-Mouse prequel set in 1939 in the Texas swamplands–but it’s not a crime novel. Though it’s about Mouse’s murder of his stepfather (an incident often alluded to in the other novels), Mr. Mosley switches from detective mode to a brooding, solemn tone. Gone Fishin’ reads like RL’s Dream (1995), Mr. Mosley’s first attempt to break out of the crime novel genre–in this case a labored, self-conscious and maudlin tale of a dying blues man, Soupspoon Wise.

It takes guts for a popular author to turn away from the genre that has made him a household name, and Mr. Mosley is nothing if not fearless. Though he continues to publish at a Grisham-like pace, he has never been a recycler of formulaic stories. His most successful post-Easy work, by far, has been the pair of exquisitely written short story collections featuring Socrates Fortlow, a grizzled ex-convict with a heart of gold who roams contemporary South Central Los Angeles, doing good deeds, dispensing bits of jailspun wisdom and inflicting grievous bodily harm upon anyone who messes with him.

Socrates Fortlow is no Easy Rawlins–but he might be considered a distant cousin of Mouse Alexander. After he “killed a man an’ raped his woman,” in 1961, Socrates Fortlow served 27 years in a penitentiary. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1998) chronicles Socrates’ post-prison life on the mean streets of Los Angeles–his transformation from lonely quasi-bum to thoughtful working man. In Walkin’ the Dog (1999), “Socco” becomes a full-blown urban sage. Mr. Mosley writes about Socco’s ongoing adjustment to life outside the joint with aching poignancy: “He carried prison around in his pockets like a passport or a small Bible.” Everything from getting a job to ordering a telephone is alien to him. When he moves into a new apartment, the ex-con thinks, “The living room was big enough to contain three single cells.”

He’s quite a piece of work, this geezer in the ‘hood. Unfortunately, there’s something a bit dry and didactic about the Socrates stories. Though they’re all beautifully sculpted, they’re moral lessons rather than engrossing narratives. Intriguing plot lines develop, then evaporate. The other characters are often sketchily drawn; they exist only in order to learn from Socrates.

Like a lot of assiduously “serious” fiction, the Socrates stories are sometimes boring. But they’re infinitely preferable to Mr. Mosley’s misbegotten Blue Light (1998), a bizarre acid flashback of a novel about close encounters between Bay Area Bohemians and sundry extraterrestrials. The tone is set on page 1: “I was once simple flesh like you, a man filled with meaningless words. But I was also a sleeping streak of blue light, scant seconds in length, jarred to consciousness after an age of silence.” Duuuuude!

Beneath all the cosmic blather, Blue Light is supposed to be an allegory about the need for peace, love and racial harmony on planet Earth. Now, with Workin’ on the Chain Gang , Mr. Mosley makes it clear that he is no longer satisfied with being a novelist: He wants to be considered a thinker . (His essay is part of a series called the Library of Contemporary Thought, which features modern-day philosophers like Edwin Schlossberg and Don Imus engaging in intellectual onanism. Titles include the earnestly edifying, The Virtues of Aging , by Jimmy Carter, and the cringingly high schoolish, Anna Quindlen’s How Reading Changed My Life .)

The theme of Workin’ on the Chain Gang is that virtually all Americans are victims of a new form of subjugation: “The problem is the enslavement of a whole nation to the rather small and insignificant goals of the few who own (or control) almost everything.” And who exactly are these sinister power mongers? Bill Gates? Steve Case? Oprah? Mr. Mosley doesn’t say. While massive generalizations have served many an essayist well, it’s hard to get away with 114 pages of them. Mr. Mosley’s rambling complaint is curiously flat and impersonal. Rather than a profound thinker, he sounds like a perpetually grouchy caller on late night talk radio. When Mr. Mosley equates working in some Dilbert-type job with the 250-year atrocity of African-American slavery you want to scream, ” Oh, come off it! ”

Fortunately, Walter Mosley is only in the second act of a major literary career. Mr. Jordan, when he finally quit baseball and returned to the hardwood, came back hungrier, badder and, arguably, better than ever. The same might be true of Mr. Mosley if and when he decides to revisit Easy Rawlins. Imagine Easy and Mouse unraveling mysteries as Los Angeles plunges into its late 1960’s apocalypse–now that would be a great read. Walter Mosley, Sadly, Deviates From Crime