Walter Mosley | Critical Review by Julius Lester

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Walter Mosley.
This section contains 820 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Julius Lester

SOURCE: "Living the Blues," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 20, 1995, p. 7.

Lester is a novelist whose And All Our Wounds Forgiven was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In the following review, he criticizes Mosley for using "a story line that is manufactured, rather than proceeding logically from the lives of its characters" in RL's Dream as well as the Easy Rawlins novels.

In White Butterfly, the third of Walter Mosley's four detective novels, there is a reference to bluesmen "Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee, Lightnin' Hopkins, Soupspoon Wise." The first three are historical. Soupspoon Wise is not, and Mosley makes him the central figure of RL's Dream, his first novel outside the detective genre.

Soupspoon, an old black Southerner dying of cancer, is evicted for non-payment of rent from the New York City apartment he has lived in for 27 years. A Southern white woman who lives in the same building is so outraged that she has Soupspoon and his belongings moved into her small apartment. Kiki Waters is in her mid-thirties and is recovering from being stabbed in a mugging by an 11-year-old black kid. She works for an insurance company and manipulates the company's computers to create a health-insurance policy for Soupspoon that enables her to get his cancer treated. When the company gets a bill for almost $200,000 from the hospital, it does not take long to trace the source of the fraud, and Kiki is fired.

However, there have been enough treatments for Soupspoon's cancer to go into remission. With renewed strength and a few more months of life, Soupspoon has Kiki tape record the story of his life in the blues and, in particular, that of one Robert "RL" Johnson, a mythical bluesman and the touchstone for Soupspoon's own life. The "RL" Johnson of the novel is loosely based on the legendary Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. Because the historical Robert Johnson is also referred to in the novel, it is sometimes not clear which is the historical Johnson and which the fictional.

Ultimately, it does not matter as the novel fails to fulfill its rich potential. By choosing a black Southern bluesman and a white Southern woman as his primary characters, Mosley sets the stage for an exploration of the complex domain of black male-white female relationships and the history and suffering that binds black and white Southerners in an almost incestuous intimacy. Having set the stage, however, he forgets to put on the play.

RL's Dream has the same weakness as Mosley's detective fiction, namely, a story line that is manufactured, rather than proceeding logically from the lives of its characters. Toward the end of this novel, for example, there is the abrupt appearance of a black teenage girl. As readers, we are not given enough time to establish a sympathetic relationship with her, so that when she sleeps with Soupspoon we are left more puzzled than edified.

Another weakness of the detective novels is also found here—a permeating tone of racial anger and self-pity. In Mosley's fiction there is very little, if any, joy in black life. Also absent is any sense of the dignity that comes when one endures with his humanity intact.

Mosley's fictional detective, Easy Rawlins, is an anti-hero who seldom attains dignity but knows what it is. The principal characters of RL's Dream seem to lack even that knowledge. Kiki is an alcoholic who goes into violent rages when she is drunk and Soupspoon is simply a dying old man whose claim to fame was that he knew Robert "RL" Johnson. However, even the title character is an ill-defined and unsympathetic figure. One gets no sense that the author loves his characters, and if he does not, why should the reader?

In the mid-'60s I collected country blues in Mississippi and Alabama from unknown and unrecorded bluesmen much like Soupspoon. I also interviewed many of the legendary bluesmen including Son House, one of Robert Johnson's teachers. What remains with me even now is the dignity and self-possession with which those men carried themselves. There was no self-pity in their voices, their posture or their music. In their hands the blues was a weapon that defended their humanity from forces that would deny it. The blues were also a catharsis, cleansing the spirit of despair and enabling singer and listener to remember that despite it all black people were more akin to angels than apes.

For a novel to be true, the voice in which it is written must be true to our humanity, so that when we read we recognize ourselves, for better and worse. As bluesman J.D. Short once told music critic Sam Charters: "Sometime the people that's listening at you have actual [sic] been through some of the same things that I have been through and automatically that takes effect on them and that causes their attention to come."

RL's Dream does not cause our attention to come.

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This section contains 820 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Julius Lester
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