Walter Mosley | Critical Review by Paula L. Woods

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Walter Mosley.
This section contains 1,005 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Paula L. Woods

Critical Review by Paula L. Woods

SOURCE: "Play Mystery for Me," in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 20, No. 4, September-October, 1995, pp. 12-13.

Woods is an editor, short story writer, and critic. In the following review, she sees connections between RL's Dream and the Easy Rawlins novels but deems it able to stand on its own, concluding that the book is "without doubt the author's finest achievement to date."

Countless fine writers have been diminished by being pigeonholed into the category of "mystery writer." But what, ultimately, do mysteries do but reveal the secret passions and fears within the human heart? On four fascinating, previous occasions Walter Mosley, one of the more recent investigators of the human condition, has guided us into the postwar world of immigrant Southern blacks in that dream state called California. Through reluctant detective Easy Rawlins' vision, we are shown a heretofore unknown world where black men love their children, protect their friends, and forge unholy alliances with the law as they seek lost loved ones in the streets of Los Angeles. While Devil in a Blue Dress, Black Betty, and the others are mysteries, they are almost incidentally so, their emotional truths much more centered on a man coming to terms with his life as an outsider in America's last and greatest land of milk and money.

In the larger context of Mosley's fiction, his most recent novel, RL's Dream, is no surprise and is, in fact, a masterful extension of the themes of communal connection, memory, and the meaning of friendship explored in the Easy Rawlins mystery novels. But to draw too many parallels between this new work and Mosley's mystery writing is unfair, because RL's Dream clearly stands on its own merits as a mesmerizing and redemptive tale of friendship, love, and forgiveness.

Soupspoon Wise is an aged bluesman who started his career in Mississippi as a contemporary and sideman to the legendary Robert Johnson. He ends up in modern-day New York, crawling through the shelters of Lower Manhattan, sick, dying, and forgotten. From the beginning Mosley's prose is impressive, describing the musician's suffering, "Pain moved up the old man's hipbone like a plow breaking through hard sod," and later; "the rattles of death in the tortured song of his breath", and coming tangibly alive while evoking Soupspoon's Southern, blues roots. Transplanted in the North, Soupspoon is out of touch with his history; broke and alone, he is about to be evicted from his apartment when he is literally rescued on the street by Kiki Waters, a thirtysomething. Southern white woman, herself out of touch with and running from a past too painful to face without considerable doses of sour mash whiskey. Kiki's act of generosity, born of her differently colored yet fundamentally common Southern roots, is particularly impressive, for she too is in considerable pain—she has been stabbed just days before by a swarming herd of black youths whom she is not hesitant to call "goddamn little niggers". The irony and importance of her kindness is not lost on the bluesman:

He was amazed. All the years he lived as a poor man among poor people and it always happened like this. You might know somebody for twenty years and never know their first name or what their feet looked like. But then one day something happens and somebody you never even thought of is there in your life closer than family.

No more unlikely a pair has been thrown together in recent memory, but to Mosley's great credit, their relationship works.

The pairing of Kiki and Soupspoon is the first of many surprises in RL's Dream; in fact, it is their unexpected coming together that prompts Soupspoon to reconstruct the most important period of his life—his association with the mythic bluesman Robert "RL" Johnson. For it is Johnson, rumored to have sold his soul to the devil to play the blues, who not only gave Soupspoon his most significant early exposure, but transformed his life as well:

He told you about far-off places in the world and played music that was stranger yet. He made songs that were deep down in you—and then you looked up and he was gone. He took something of yours that you didn't even know you had; something your mother and your father never knew about. And taking it away he left you with something missing—and that something was better than you ever had.

As Soupspoon begins to rally after cancer treatment, he tries to recapture that missing "something" by recording his memories and those of his few remaining contemporaries about their encounters with RL. His attempts to make meaning from his life by reconstructing his relationship with Johnson ultimately spur him to play his down-home blues music a few last times, first in an East Village street fair and later in a neighborhood bar.

Amidst this tale of remembrance and redemption, Mosley gives us a rich and sometimes comical portrayal of the habitués of Southern juke joints and SoHo hangouts and a varied cast of deftly drawn characters including Randy, a black man unwittingly passing as an Arab; Mavis, Soupspoon's former wife, hiding from life's pain in her all-white apartment building; and Chevette, a street-savvy girl-woman who becomes Soupspoon's last love. True to his earlier writing, Mosley also provides a fair amount of suspense revolving around Kiki's fraudulent activities on Soupspoon's behalf, actions conceived out of love for the old man that have serious, even deadly consequences for many of the novel's characters.

Richard Wright once said of the blues, "The most astonishing aspect of the blues is that, though replete with a sense of defeat and downheartedness, they are not intrinsically pessimistic; their burden of woe and melancholy is dialectically redeemed through sheer force of sensuality into an exultant affirmation of life, of love, of sex, of movement, of hope." The same can be said of RL's Dream which is, without doubt, the author's finest achievement to date, a rich literary gumbo with blues-tinged rhythms that make it a joy to read and a book to remember.

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This section contains 1,005 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Paula L. Woods
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