This section contains 1,496 words
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Critical Review by David L. Ulin
SOURCE: "Where Memory and Reality Intersect," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 6, 1995, pp. 3, 8.
Ulin is a nonfiction writer, poet, and critic. In the following review, he praises Mosley for taking a break from the Easy Rawlins series and finds much to admire in RL's Dream, but deems the novel flawed because of its false premise about blues music.
You've got to give Walter Mosley credit for having guts. Last year, Black Betty, the fourth novel in his Easy Rawlins mystery series, sold more than 100,000 hardcover copies and was acclaimed by no less a fan than President Clinton, who declared Mosley his favorite mystery writer. Later this summer, Denzel Washington will star as Rawlins in a motion picture adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress.
In the midst of all this Rawlins-mania, the time would seem right for Mosley to build a serious franchise, to crank out another dozen or so titles and establish his character as the quintessential detective hero of our time. Yet although he apparently does plan to write five more volumes about his oddly existential private eye, Mosley has chosen, for the time being, to go in the exact opposite direction—taking a break from Rawlins to publish RL's Dream, a contemporary novel set in New York City about an aging Delta blues musician named Soupspoon Wise.
Mosley's decision is hardly out of character, he has always had a lot on his mind. The Rawlins novels, in fact, are most remarkable for the ways they transform our expectations of the hardboiled mystery, taking familiar territory—the gritty urban landscape of post-World War II Los Angeles—and turning it inside out.
Mosley's L.A. is not that of Raymond Chandler, where tycoons and hoodlums cross paths on gambling boats anchored off the Santa Monica coast. Rather, it is a sprawl of black neighborhoods largely hidden from the history books, a shadow community within the larger city, where a unique, street-smart justice prevails.
The greatest part of Mosley's achievement lies in the way he captures the physical sense of this place, the way his characters' lives extend backward and forward beyond the boundaries of the page and the way the streets of South-Central Los Angeles vibrate with a shifting pattern of loose alliances and unresolved disputes.
With RL's Dream, however, Mosley raises the stakes by stepping outside this individual mythology to take on the legends at the heart of black America itself. The RL of the title is none other than Robert 'RL' Johnson. He's the blues man who, according to tradition, sold his soul to the devil to master the guitar, only to die in August, 1938, at 27, when "Satan come got him in a little place outside Greenwood, Mississippi. Satan or a jealous man."
To tell the truth, Mosley's title seems a bit misleading; Johnson appears here only as a peripheral character, a figure of memory, trapped in the closed circle of the past. But if the guitarist's role is more that of a metaphor than of actual flesh and blood, he is a metaphor of vivid immediacy, for, in the world of this novel at least, he was once Soupspoon Wise's mentor, a traveling companion with whom Wise used to perform, and who, all these years afterward, remains in his protégé's head with the lucency of a dream.
RL's Dream begins on a cold winter day in New York as Soupspoon Wise staggers away from a men's shelter on the Bowery and returns to his apartment on the Lower East Side. It is winter in Soupspoon's life also; he is tired, sick with cancer, and he very shortly finds himself thrown out into the street. While waiting for Social Services to take him away, he is rescued by Kiki, the "skinny redheaded girl from upstairs," who brings him into her home and tries to nurse him back to health.
Kiki is recovering from troubles of her own—a stab wound she received trying to help a woman who was being mugged. Together, this unlikely pair creates an alliance against the world, looking after each other in a way that combines a father-daughter tenderness with the edgy intimacy of lovers, a role that Soupspoon never quite allows them to play.
Like the Rawlins novels, RL's Dream is strongest in its explication of characters, with not only Soupspoon and Kiki, but the various supporting figures, functioning as fully realized human beings. Mosley doesn't write about New York with the authority he brings to Los Angeles; for him, Manhattan is little more than a gray backdrop to the action he describes.
But that's OK, for RL's Dream is less about life in the modern city than about the interplay between past and present, the way memory and reality intersect. Thus, although Soupspoon and Kiki may share living quarters and a certain fundamental bond, both are essentially lost in their own heads, trying to come to terms with personal history in whatever way they can.
For Kiki, the irreconcilable issue is the brutal sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, a legacy that surfaces in violent nightmares and forces her to drink herself to sleep every night. For Soupspoon, it is his relationship with Robert Johnson, ever unresolved.
Even on his deathbed, Soupspoon reflects: "Chilly death pass through me like a rill through the woods, like maybe I'm a wake up and all this I been goin' through is just a dream. The kinda dream that somebody like RL would have. A evil longlastin' dream about all the bad things could happen here."
Where RL's Dream begins to run into trouble is with its narrative inconsistencies. Mosley has had similar problems in his previous work; of the Rawlins novels only the second, A Red Death, possesses what might be called a well-developed structure, and, like those books, RL's Dream has an at-times serendipitous approach to storytelling technique. As the novel progresses, some events seem to take place for no apparent reason, as if Mosley were making it up as he went along.
It's never fully clear, for instance, why, with all her problems, Kiki chooses to take Soupspoon in. More confusing is her decision to risk both job and criminal prosecution by engaging in insurance fraud, falsifying computer records to create a million-dollar policy in Soupspoon's name that ends up costing her employer $186,000 "for radiation treatments, doctor's visits, and medicine."
The Kiki whom Mosley creates is too smart and ornery to get caught up in such a blatant, illogical act, and his Soupspoon is too independent to go along for the ride. Yet Mosley dispenses with their doubts and concerns in a few sporadic scenes, and when the scam is eventually exposed, it feels false, forced—a mechanical device to move things along rather than an organic consequence of plot.
For all this, though, the most troublesome aspect of RL's Dream is the archaic, nearly stereotypical attitude Mosley takes toward the blues, his conception of the form as evil, somehow devilsent. That's a tricky criticism to make, for Mosley clearly reveres the genre; he is often at his best describing the way music flows from Soupspoon's or Robert Johnson's guitar, "music so right that it's more like rain than notes; more like a woman's call than need."
From the novel's epigraph to its final page, Mosley continually refers to the blues man as wicked, recalling his "evil, handsome face," his "[one] dead eye they said … could see past all what we see, into hell—where everyone knows the blues comes from anyways."
The problem with this perspective is that it is not only out of date, but wrongheaded, on the order of claiming that insanity and creativity are inextricably linked. Yes, the blues was once known as "the devil's music," and the legend of Robert Johnson standing at a Mississippi crossroads, exchanging his soul for an unimaginable acuity with the guitar, lives. But the ideas of blues musicians having an intimate relationship with evil, and of the music itself being satanic, are just stereotypes, as misdirected as the suggestion that all African Americans have rhythm.
If anything, these attitudes have contributed to a romanticizing of the blues that belies the intention an artist as sophisticated as Robert Johnson must have brought to his music, defining him as a folk hero whose talents were the product of otherworldly assistance rather than as a man whose songs reflect a unique combination of inspiration and hard work. It's disheartening to see a writer as attuned to black culture and history as Mosley embrace such a point of view.
Ultimately, RL's Dream stumbles because of that, hobbled by its allegiance to a past that never was. It's unfortunate, because I admire Mosley for having the courage to take even a temporary step back from Easy Rawlins, and, surely, there is much in these pages to admire, as well. At the deepest level, though, this is a flawed novel, constructed on a false premise about the blues. As such, it ends up recycling old illusions even as it seeks to forge something new.
This section contains 1,496 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)