Walter Mosley

 

A Little Yellow Dog

 

Having been knocked a bit sideways by RL's Dream I thought I’d give something else of his a go.

 

This guy can write. Particularly in the final third as the story builds the intensity is gripping. He capably paints a cast of gritty urban characters, and hurls his protagonist ‘Easy’ through Marlowesque investigation, dangerous engagement with cops and crims, beating and final climactic bloody resolution (in LA, no less). Easy is a good balance of resource and vulnerability and has his virtues. In many ways this is a better than average read. Moreover there are distinctively African-American insights.

 

Where I hesitated to rate this any higher than a  B  came from the odd sexual morality. This review in a sense overstates it, because it’s only a minor aspect of an otherwise solid and occasionally striking book. And I’m really unsure (as an Australian Caucasian) just how to relate this to the significance of the Afro-American context. Is ‘Easy’ meant to be a troubled individual, or is he in some ways meant to be racially emblematic? It feels like Mosley deliberately underpins the book with Negro values that, perhaps, he’s happy to have at odds with my own. Or perhaps he wasn’t even vaguely trying to write for an audience like me.

 

OK, what I’m talking about is the way that Easy – in so many ways an in control, mature, far-sighted, sharp, cool guy – seems to be consciously presented as a dumb animal in the opening scene – setting the book up more as soft-porn than a sophisticated crime novel. Easy himself is aware of the incongruity:

I’d been on good behavior for more than two years. I was out of the streets and had my job with the Los Angeles Board of Education. I took care of my kids, cashed my paychecks, stayed away from liquor.

I steered clear of the wrong women too.

Maybe I’d been a little too good. I felt an urge in that classroom, but I wasn’t going to make the move.

That’s when Idabell Turner kissed me.

Two years of up early and off to work dissolved like a sugar cube under the tap.

It’s not merely titillation – but it is, make no mistake, titillation – and even if there’s more going on, starting like that is very much a cynical use of voyeurism to get people in early. It just seems such an immature (or different?) view of sex.

 

Is it just stepping up the flirtations of a Chandler novel: in Farewell, My Lovely Marlowe fairly happily allows himself to play around in the seductive charms of a dangerous woman – is this simply Mosley kicking it up to 90s flirtation (i.e. from a little ‘foolin’ around’ to all the romance of instant rutting on a desk)? But I wonder if there’s more – if it’s simply that teenage thing of presenting a hero who has to show, “Hey, I’m in control, but I’m no prude.” He’s not writing James Bond farce here, so it’s not excusable as daydream absurdity.

 

I’m skating on very thin ice here – I’ve got nothing to go on but the pap of the media’s presentation of black America (we get plenty of US TV over here) – but is Mosley celebrating this sexual beast as part and parcel of the dormant avatar of the semi-mythical powers of the ‘streets’ – presented here much as a dangerous magical power that can be drawn on but will exact a price. Is he deliberately suggesting that his Negro hero, as a Negro, has latent and at times uncontrollable urges for sex, risk and violence? For a white writer to hint at such animal tendencies would be, I suspect rightly, condemned as libellous racial stereotyping. Again, is this, rather, just something in ‘Easy’, and never meant to be generalised? Sure it’s the theme of a million ‘street’ style T & A rap bluster music videos, but I thought Mosley would be somewhere beyond their openly stupid misogyny.

 

I suspect that Mosley would simply realise that whatever he was saying, I just didn’t ‘get it’.

 

Whatever, this is one of those well written books that I just can’t recommend as highly because I find something too offensive. I mean, it’s not as offensive as, say, Fry’s The Hippopotamus or Golsdworthy’s Wish (again, both gifted writers), but I can’t really just ignore the trivialisation of sex; I would have been able to thoroughly enjoy this aspect of the book if instead of sex he had have had Easy merely kiss Idabell (or, later, Bonnie). Moreover, handled well this would have been at least as powerful (and a world less gratuitous). If Easy had have, for example, found himself out of the blue passionately kissing a woman he’d hardly spoken to, when he’d had no other intimate relationship for years and was unsure about commitment, it would be just as valid to continue immediately afterwards:

When I leaned over to kiss her forehead I experienced a feeling that I’d known many times in my life. It was that feeling of elation before I embarked on some kind of risky venture. In the old days it was about the police and criminals and the streets of Watts and South Central LA.

            But not this time. Not again. I swallowed hard and gritted my teeth with enough force to crack stone. I’d slipped but I would not fall.

A kiss can mean a lot. It can open up a whole new potentiality in a relationship – and be a risk that a cautious mind might regret having taken. It can also maintain an attractive innocence. I will probably be dismissed by some as being too childish in response to an adult novel. But for Mosley to treat sex like this feels juvenile to me: isn’t he old enough to have worked out that commitment and relationship and sex have a bit more going on than this puerile opening daydream?

 

Like I said, I don’t suppose I was the audience he was aiming at with that.

 

January 2006