Walter Mosley | Critical Review by Barry Gifford

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Walter Mosley.
This section contains 1,038 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Barry Gifford

Critical Review by Barry Gifford

SOURCE: "L. A. Raw," in The New York Times Book Review, June 5, 1994, p. 13.

Gifford is a novelist and critic. In the following review, he observes that with his fourth Easy Rawlins novel, Black Betty, Mosley "beats hell out of most of today's contenders for consideration as the top-ranking writer in the mystery division."

In Black Betty, Walter Mosley writes like a boxer who throughout his career has campaigned as a lightweight or welterweight and now, because he can no longer shed the necessary pounds, is forced to fight as a middleweight. To go the full 12 rounds a good fighter has to pace him-self, and Mr. Mosley, in his fourth novel about the black Los Angeles private eye Easy Rawlins, still seems slightly unsure, not of his capacity to endure the distance but rather of just how far to extend himself per round. However, Mr. Mosley beats hell out of most of today's contenders for consideration as a top-ranking writer in the mystery division.

Boxing is called the sweet science; Mr. Mosley has a sweet ear. "I rapped my knuckles on the front door. It was fabricated from many layers of wood. So many layers that I couldn't get a sure knock. The sound I did make was nothing more than the rustling of kisses in a close hallway at night." That's Easy Rawlins talking, running down a lead on an old acquaintance of his, Elizabeth Eady, also called Black Betty, who has turned up missing.

The year is 1961, the geography Los Angeles and the surrounding desert. Easy has been living off his real estate investments, the proceeds of which have dwindled lately, forcing him to take on this outside work. Besides his own, he has two other mouths to feed, those of his adopted children: 15-year-old Jesus (Juice), a mostly mute champion prep-school long-distance runner, whom Easy saved from further abuse and "a life of child prostitution before he was 3," and Feather, a little girl whose white mother was murdered by her own father for the crime of having borne a black child. Jesus has chosen to remain silent, speaking occasionally only to his sister, never to Easy Rawlins, who admits his sadness regarding this situation one night to Feather while they're watching "Dobie Gillis" on television. "Why won't Juice talk to me?" Easy asks her. "Because he don't like you to talk to, Daddy," she answers, adding, "But that's O.K. because he love you too."

Easy first encountered Black Betty in their native Houston, when he was 12 years old. Betty was "a great shark of a woman. Men died in her wake…. Back then there weren't too many of your colored men who could afford a steady diet of Betty. Many a night, yesterday's boyfriend went up against tonight's man. Betty could draw blood three nights in a week, and if it ever bothered her she never let it show." The preadolescent Easy had spotted her "sashaying down the wooden sidewalks of Houston's Fifth Ward" adorned by "black lace, gloves and fur." She "smelled so good that I forgot who I was." When the young Easy had told Betty how pretty he thought she was, she had bestowed upon him so powerful a soul kiss that he had fallen down. When a slimy white private eye named Saul Lynx asks the now middle-aged Easy if he knows Black Betty, Rawlins feigns ignorance, but the memory of her flaming lips has permanently scored his brain pan. "I would have jumped out of a window for her kiss," Easy confesses to the reader.

Betty left Houston after a series of nefarious activities and has ended up, 25 years later, in Beverly Hills, working as a domestic. Saul Lynx tells Easy that Betty has disappeared and her boss wants her back. Lynx's sources say Rawlins is the man to track the lady down. Easy is not wild about taking the gig, but times being what they are, and the woman being not just any woman, he signs on.

What follows is no ordinary caper. In short order, Rawlins has to deal with a homicidal sidekick, Mouse; Betty's strange, off-key half brother, Marlon; a cowardly, lizardlike bookie named Jackson Blue and his paranoid triggerman, Ortiz; Alamo Weir, "the kind of crazy animal who lied, cheated and killed"; and dozens of other odd creations. Underscoring this scenario is Easy's constant sorrowful longing for Edna, his daughter, who lives with her mother. Regina, Easy's ex-wife, in Mississippi.

The real value of Walter Mosley's novel lies in his digressions and social shorthand. For example, take this riff on Los Angeles: "You could tell by some people's houses that they came to L.A. to live out their dreams. Home is not a place to dream…. Home meant that everybody already knew what you could do and if you did the slightest little thing different they'd laugh you right down into a hole. You lived in that hole…. After a while you either accepted your hole or you got out of it. There were all kinds of ways out. You could get married, get drunk, get next to somebody's wife. You could take a shotgun and eat it for a midnight snack. Or you could move to California."

There are echoes of Farewell, My Lovely in Black Betty, but that doesn't make Walter Mosley the black Raymond Chandler, any more than echoes of The Real Cool Killers make him the heir to Chester Himes. Every modern fighter who can hook off the jab and circle south owes a debt to Sugar Ray Robinson, but that doesn't mean much if he hasn't got the heart to go with it-and nobody will ever accuse Walter Mosley of lacking heart. This man comes at you kind of herky-jerky; his words prowl around the page before they pounce, knocking you not so much upside the head as around the body, where you feel them the longest.

"Poor men are always ready to die," Easy says at one point. "We always expect that there's somebody out there who wants to kill us. That's why I never questioned that a white man would pull out his gun when he saw a Negro coming. That's just the way it is in America."

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This section contains 1,038 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Barry Gifford
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