This section contains 1,530 words
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Critical Essay by Sarah Lyall
SOURCE: "Heroes in Black, Not White," in The New York Times, June 15, 1994, pp. C1, C8.
In the following excerpt, Lyall reviews Mosley's life and career through the publication of Black Betty.
Walter Mosley describes Los Angeles so precisely in his detective novels that it is a surprise to learn that he hasn't lived here in years. His descriptions are drawn partly from childhood memories, partly from his parents' stories and partly from the occasional consultation of street maps.
"L.A. is not my city," says Mr. Mosley, who lives in New York with his wife, Joy Kellman, a dancer. "It's not for living, I don't like to drive. In my neighborhood in New York, there's a little old lady who's lived in the same building for 70 years; next door is Charles Kuralt; next door are some yuppies, and next door is Roy Lichtenstein. And people walk in the streets, all kinds of people, not just young people with well-developed chests who are walking so that other people will look at them."
He was sitting down to dinner at Maurice's Snack 'n' Chat, on West Pico Boulevard a few blocks east of Fairfax Avenue. Of course he had to take a car to get there.
Mr. Mosley, whose latest mystery novel is Black Betty, says he is fond of this city as a place to visit, though: among other reasons, it's where his mother still lives (his father died last year). At Maurice's, in his mother's neighborhood, you can eat a plate of Southern-style vegetables and sip a large lemonade at leisure. Maurice herself is likely to emerge in a brightly colored skirt and a big smile to see how you're doing. She's pleased to welcome any guest, and the walls of her restaurant are lined with photographs of celebrity visitors.
The truth is that Mr. Mosley, who seems almost preternaturally unflappable, qualifies as something of a celebrity himself these days.
In 1990, he published Devil in a Blue Dress, the first in a series of highly praised mysteries featuring a reluctant detective named Easy Rawlins and his volatile, homicidal friend, Mouse. Since then, Mr. Mosley has hobnobbed with Danny Glover, with Gregory Hines, with Denzel Washington (who is starring in the movie version of Devil in a Blue Dress that is being filmed now in Los Angeles).
But what gained him the most attention was Bill Clinton's assertion during the 1992 Presidential campaign that Mr. Mosley was one of his favorite authors.
He was pleased to hear it, he said, not only for the boost it gave to his sales …, but also because he is a Clinton supporter.
"And then there's a politically correct reason, but it's how I feel," Mr. Mosley says. "It's this: Clinton pays attention to black people and Native American people and Asian people. This is very good. Maya Angelou reads at his inauguration. He reads Walter Mosley's books. This causes the people who manage the culture to pay attention. Black people turn their heads and say: 'The President's interested in somebody and he's black. My man.'"
Mr. Mosley's first audience came from the cadre of passionate American mystery readers who pounce on anything new. But it expanded to general readers and his books draw enthusiastic praise both for their evocation of black life and for the language he uses. "Mr. Mosley writes in a talking-blues style that is his own kind of music," Marilyn Stasio wrote in The New York Times Book Review in August 1990.
Easy Rawlins is a rare sort of protagonist, and Mr. Mosley tries hard to make him complicated and credible. "I write about believable black male heroes in a world where there aren't many," he said. "In the world of Hollywood and the cinema, you have black heroes who are really like white guys-they don't have the flaws that are necessary for real heroes, the flaws that have to be overcome."
Among Easy's flaws are an aversion to steady employment (a problem that will be remedied soon, Mr. Mosley promises), misfortune in love and some difficulty balancing his life between his detective work and his two adopted children, whom he is raising by himself.
Along the way Mr. Mosley, 42, paints a picture of a Los Angeles that he remembers from his childhood or that he picked up by listening to his parents and their friends talk about what life was like when they moved to the city after World War II. He has brought Easy from the late 1940's to the early 1960's so far, describing a world of con artists and working people and two-bit losers and couples struggling to stay together and entrepreneurs struggling to get started. They are all confronted by little opportunity, not enough money and too much prejudice.
Easy (short for Ezekiel) is an improbable, thoughtful hero who takes on more than he should and gets into impossible scrapes, somehow becoming the moral center of his circle of friends.
Mr. Mosley spent part of his early years in a largely black and Hispanic neighborhood in the South Central section of Los Angeles, and later moved with his family to a middle-class neighborhood. His father, who was black, and his mother, who is white, Jewish and from New York City, met and married when both worked for the Los Angeles school system-he as a janitor, she as a clerk. Mr. Mosley said it wasn't hard growing up the son of a mixed couple because both families accepted it, as did blacks, at least, with whom the family spent much of its time.
Mr. Mosley said that his propensity for storytelling came from both his parents and their family traditions. But while there are many people to chronicle the Jewish experience—"People like Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer have done a very good job, thank you," he said—there are fewer for blacks. "One of the things about the black experience is that we have an incredibly rich oral history and great stories that are begging to be told," he said. "I'm writing them down."
Before Mr. Mosley published Devil in a Blue Dress, successful black mystery writers were so rare as to be almost unheard of. "Now I see them all the time," Mr. Mosley said. "I think they've been writing these books all along, but the publishing world is now saying: 'Hey, black people can enter the genres. Maybe we could get a black western writer and a black romance writer. Black mystery writers we know we can do because there are people reading Walter Mosley books.'"
Mr. Mosley says that his characters develop by themselves, that when he sits down to write, they take over and do what they like. He didn't start writing until about seven years ago. He started as a computer programmer, a job he all but fell into after a truly indifferent academic career at Goddard College, in Vermont.
"Some colleges are liberal arts colleges, and Goddard was a radical arts college," he said, by way of explaining its laissez-faire appeal. At a place that allowed students to design their own curriculums, he managed to receive academic credit for hitchhiking across the country. After that, Mr. Mosley found that it made sense to follow his adviser's advice to leave school.
He began a long stretch as a computer programmer and moved to New York. Eventually, he concluded that he was in the wrong field.
He found the right one when he did a year of graduate work in writing at City College and enrolled in a small writing workshop in Manhattan. He produced a nonmystery novel, Gone Fishing, which generated a round of rejections. His second effort was Devil in a Blue Dress. He waited for six months before showing it to his teacher at City College. Then he went away for the weekend.
"I came back and he said, 'I gave it to my agent, Gloria Loomis, and she's going to represent you.'" Six weeks later she sold it to Norton. "I quit my job almost on the same day," Mr. Mosley said.
Mr. Mosley's contract with Gerald Howard, his editor at W. W. Norton, has yielded yet more contracts. Devil in a Blue Dress was published in 1990, Red Death in 1991, White Butterfly in 1992, and now Black Betty. The author is under contract for three more books for Norton: A Little Yellow Dog and Bad Boy Bobby Brown (the next two installments in the Easy Rawlins series) and RL's Dream, about a jazz musician who goes back in time to perform with the legendary Delta blues singer Robert Johnson.
His proudest reader might well be his mother, Ella, a talkative 73-year-old who recently drove herself to every one of her son's six readings at bookstores in Los Angeles, wearing a Black Betty pin. In an interview, she allowed that her son had turned into a terrific writer, even though she had always dreamed of his becoming a hotel manager. "The trouble with Walter is that he's too good at too many things," she said.
The meal was all finished, but Mr. Mosley hadn't touched his piece of coconut cake, with ice cream that had mostly melted. Maurice came out to wave goodbye. And because it was Los Angeles, Mr. Mosley stepped into a waiting car.
This section contains 1,530 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)