Six Easy Pieces
Academia and I have a rocky relationship that’s a bit one-sided. I see great potential, often squandered; they don’t pay me much heed at all.
So it should come as no surprise that my academic colleagues look askance at ‘binary thinking.’ I’m a practical person: the math of binary outcomes is easier, but they even frown at that joke. (Not, I assure you, my worst.)
Allow me, then, to bifurcate crime writers into two camps: the perfectly serviceable and the ones who are true artists producing work that should last. The latter camp is best exemplified by those masters of noir we met a while back. The merely serviceable come and go around here in spite of scant literary merit.
Walter Mosley will, I predict, find his place among the long-standing masters.
If you don’t know Mosley you should, whether or not you enjoy crime fiction. He’s a fine writer whose stories, at least the ones I’ve read, are set in the early decades after WWII mostly in and around Los Angeles.
Lest you think he’s just another Cain, Chandler or Connelly, there’s a twist. Mosley, and his characters, are African-American although in the argot of the day they’re more likely to be called Black or Negro.
Mosley’s primary characters are migrants from Texas and Louisiana, part of the same migration that delivered such notable musical talent as Lowell Fulsom, T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown, Percy Mayfield and Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson from the Southland to what became a vibrant West Coast blues and R&B scene.
I can’t read these books without a soundtrack full of tunes from Imperial Records and Jake Porter‘s Combo label running through my head. If you ever needed an explanation as to why Southern California spawned so many great roots music bands it lies in this diaspora which was complemented by white musicians who built Bakersfield into its own alternative to Nashville.
Goodness that got away from me. (But what a reason for a bonus playlist.)
Mosley is best known for the characters at the heart of this book: Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins and Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander. Easy is anything but. He’s a complicated man, self-educated, self-sufficient, self-aware, self-made and self-contained.
He could, in fact, be the typical loner hero of classic noir, think Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. But Easy is a black man living in a pre-Civil Rights Movement country and to survive he needs other people–his community, his family, even white people who have respected him, and thereby earned his trust. Maybe it’s the time period in which his stories occur, but I can’t help thinking Easy Rawlins is nine-tenths Superego.
By contrast, Raymond is walking Id, his appetites large, his emotions subsumed until they erupt. Mouse Alexander is walking menace and everybody in Los Angeles’ black community knows it. Women, whiskey, winning. Whatever Raymond wants, Raymond takes because to settle for getting would be to risk not getting. Mouse is forever playing tempter to Easy, offering him a place on the mountaintop and all the good things that can be seen from it.
Even when central–and Mouse is always central in an Easy Rawlins tale–he is spectral. Except this time, for at least the first four pieces, Mouse truly is a ghost, at least for Easy. Raymond was shot and presumably killed while assiting Easy in a tight situation. Except Easy can’t be sure because Mouse’s wife, Etta, walked out of the hospital carrying the bullet-filled body of her husband. With no certainty, Easy cannot lay the past or his friend to rest.
That last sentence reminds me to say there’s some literary playmaking going on here and it starts with the book’s title. What should we make of a book of pieces? Is there anything in the title’s nod to Feynman and Stravinsvky? Don’t write that question off without remembering that both of those geniuses were migrants to Los Angeles, too.
And why use six in the title when there are seven pieces? Is that a literary baker’s half dozen? Or what about the most inside joke of all? There is a lyric by the great punk band, X, that in naming bar names goes: “Stop & Drink, Sit and Sip, Rest in Pieces.” Could Mosley be relishing the pun? Before you dismiss my obsessions, X, too, hail from Los Angeles and I don’t believe in coincidence.
If I appear to be dodging the book itself, I am. This is, after all, crime fiction and plot matters; giving too much away spoils the fun. At the outset we meet Easy on the job. Though he acts as a detective, Easy would be the first to tell you he just helps people when they get in a bit of trouble. So when I say on the job I mean his actual job, superintendent of the custodial staff at the anachronistically named Sojurner Truth School .
Easy’s first piece of non-school work is uncovering who lit a fire and burned one of the school’s out-buildings to the ground. It’s a gentle introduction to our hero and how he operates and introduces a cast of characters–black and white–typical of South Central. Not that Easy is bound to his territory. Over the course of these tales he ventures as far north as the Santa Barbara back country and as upmarket as Pacific Palisades.
Tales is the right word, by the way, because also like early noir, these pieces each stand alone. Yet they stand together as, essentially, a novel. It’s a conceit that works and, because they were conceived together, actually works better for me than the one-offs featuring the Continental Op and his ilk.
There is also much more back and side story than you’d ever get from the hard-boiled crowd. Easy is an uneasy family man, the adopted father of two children, one of whom is Mexican. His companion is a multi-lingual air hostess who travels and just may be, Easy fears, a step out of his league.
At this point Easy is 44 years of age, a solid citizen still fighting his inner demons, still beset by doubt, still susceptible to a friend so dangerous that joining the Army to fight World War II seemed a safer option than sticking around.
Mosley’s great gift to us isn’t the resurrection of Southern California noir. It’s that’s he’s updated and humanized it, turning the hero from a walking stack of virtues and principles to a real flesh and blood man trying to figure things out just like the rest of us.
And oh what a wonderful gift that is.
Just because I said I would, here’s a bonus playlist which also just happens to be representative of my usual Sunday morning soundtrack. Caution: one of these things is not like the other.