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Critical Review by Gary Giddins
SOURCE: "Soupspoon's Blues," in The New York Times Book Review, August 13, 1995, pp. 11-12.
Giddins is an American critic and biographer. In the following review of RL's Dream, he applauds Mosley's "superb reportorial eye" and notes that "several episodes are as well tuned as anything he has written," but finds the book flawed by occasional lapses into sentimentality and burdened by excessive profundities from the main character.
The "RL" of Walter Mosley's new novel, RL's Dream, is Robert Johnson, the Delta blues singer who died young and violently in 1938. (No one knows why Johnson called himself RL, and Mr. Mosley doesn't attempt an explanation.) Admired by blues connoisseurs in life, he was rediscovered by the largely white, middle-class folk and blues revival of the 1960's, and reborn in a big way 25 years later to a pop audience that acknowledged him as a dark-of-night backwoods conjurer who prefigured everything from Chicago blues to hard rock—a tormented visionary who bartered his soul to the Devil. And what did he get in return—genius? women? recognition? It is difficult to speak concretely of Robert Johnson, as it is of many artists who lived lives so short, messy and contrary that if not for their work they would seem like figures in mythology.
Although Mr. Mosley brings him to ground in a tangled vignette that arrives about midway in the book, allowing him to breathe hotly on the page, it is ultimately the mythic Robert Johnson who haunts this often startling, emphatic modern-day fable. Mr. Mosley's RL is at once a blues virtuoso who makes dancers go wild, whose "blues would rip the skin right off yo' back," and a gloomy apparition of futility. One disciple who can't shake the dread is Atwater (Soupspoon) Wise, a black Mississippi orphan who briefly traveled with Johnson. Now dying in New York, he is obsessed with recounting and defining their association. Mr. Mosley zooms in on him on the Lower East Side, hobbling in blind terror and befouled agony, with a busted hip and advanced cancer, hallucinating "a young man with short nappy hair and one dead eye." When he arrives at his apartment, he is expelled for nonpayment of rent and left to die on the street.
Enter Kiki Waters, in pain herself after being stabbed that day by a 10-year-old black boy. One of the most unlikely saviors to enter American fiction in some years, Kiki was born in Arkansas, where she was the victim of unspeakably savage sexual attacks from her father. She is a white woman in her early 30's—alcoholic, fiercely independent, unpredictable, scary and smart. A tenant in Soupspoon's building, though they have never met, she throws a tantrum over his eviction and insists that he move in with her. She quickly dispatches her sometime boyfriend (a Negro convinced by his mother that he isn't), the landlord and others who stand in her way. Undeterred by Soupspoon's stench, she undresses him, carries him—despite the pull on her stit hes—to the tub and bathes him. Soup thinks, in concert with the reader: "Maybe she was crazy. Drunk maybe, or insane." Yet she shakes loose "the loneliness that had been his life for years."
RL's Dream is about Soup's last stand as a musician and how he and Kiki alternate roles of nurturer and invalid. It is a story of the Deep South but set in another country, up north. They live in New York but dream of the piney woods. "While Soupspoon was counting dead bodies in his sleep, Kiki called out, 'No, daddy.' Her dream was Southern too." Yet their obsessive recollections have entirely different tenors. Atwater's are elegiac—even his litanies of violence, murder, racism. "For all that it was barren, the Delta was a beautiful land too. It was a hard land but true. It had the whippoorwill and the hoot owl and crickets for music, It had pale dead trees that stood out in the moonlight like the hands of dead men reaching out of the ground." Kiki's are horrific—she drinks herself into a stupor for fear of remembering.
It may be useful, at this point, to assure his many admirers that this is indeed the work of the Walter Mosley who has written four justly celebrated detective novels set in Los Angeles during the 15 years following World War II, and starring the serenely cool and competent Easy Rawlins. In RL's Dream, Mr. Mosley has risked a lyrical and original—if imperfect—leap beyond genre fiction, working for the first time in the third person and substituting an omniscient probing of damaged lives for the modulated fastidiousness of Rawlins. His superb reportorial eye is fully focused on New York's street life as well as the tar-paper bucket-of-blood juke joints of the Delta. Several episodes are as well tuned as anything he has written including the violent conclusion, and especially a tense and comic tour de force in which Kiki embezzles a million-dollar insurance policy from her company to pay for Soupspoon's chemotherapy. More impressive still is the cast—excepting a few stock roles (villain, milquetoast), it is mostly original and often credible.
Still, episodes do congeal into misguided sentimentality, underscored by gnomic utterances designed to render Soupspoon a kind of cosmic bluesman. Sitting in the park, Soup meditates on ants and worms. As he begins his observation ("Everybody's doin' their business"), you suddenly recall that his name is Wise and wish it weren't. Wise sayings mount up all too quickly. On music: "It's all about gettin' so close to pain that it's like a friend, like somebody you love." On blues: "Blues is the Devil's music an' we his chirren. RL was Satan's favorite son." Yet when he considers RL's remark "They ain't no gettin' away from you stank, Soup," he concludes, "The words just didn't make sense." Oh? Unhappily, they make a lot more sense than the examples of Soup's lyrics, most of which are self-consciously arty and even foolish, confirming the reader's suspicion that Mr. Mosley knows very little about the blues or the lives of bluesmen. Incidentally, it is inconceivable that those listening to Soupspoon use the names Robert Johnson and RL interchangeably wouldn't ask why or register confusion.
Such moments of unreality, including an episode in which an 18-year-old beauty seduces Soupspoon, are jarring because Mr. Mosley's intonation is usually dead on. By the story's almost too perfect conclusion, you know Kiki—"this redheaded white girl, drunk and jagged, who thought slaps were kisses and whisky was milk"—well enough to recognize her on the street. The author's pleasure in her is confirmed in the crazily ripe future he gives her. Nor does Mr. Mosley miss a beat with Randy, her black boyfriend who thinks he's Egyptian; or Mavis, Soup's former wife and once RL's lover, who inhabits an apartment decorated entirely in white and is still mourning her 5-year-old son. The boy's accidental death half a century ago was indirectly related to the rowdy night Mavis spent dancing to RL and Soupspoon in a juke joint.
Mavis tells Kiki you can't plan your life no matter how hard you try, and that, in part, is the subject of "RL's Dream." Even as he regains his strength to put on an oldtime fancy suit for one last musical job in a low-down back-alley gambling joint, Soupspoon Wise realizes his life was a mirage, a dream, and not even his own dream. "I never played the blues, not really," he says. "I run after it all these years. I scratched at its coattails and copied some notes. But the real blues is covered by mud and blood in the Mississippi Delta. The real blues is down that terrible passway where RL traveled, sufferin' an' singin' till he was dead. I followed him up to the gateway, but Satan scared me silly and left me back to cry."
This section contains 1,303 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)