RL's BLUES. By Walter Mosley, W.W. Norton, 267 pages, $22. WALTER MOSLEY IS trying his hand at literary fiction in this novel, and for that he'll automatically take some shots. For literary fiction and mystery novels are generally considered such discrete entities that anyone who moves from one camp to the other is instantly suspect. Joyce Carol Oates, who writes suspense novels under the pen name Rosamund Smith, and James Lee Burke are among the few writers to succeed in both areas.
Certainly one can be very good at one and inept in the other, for ultimately the goals are different. Literary fiction is character-driven, can be more interior and can be more open-ended than the mystery, which is plot-driven and must keep the action moving. Then, too, are the prejudices: A "serious" writer who attempts mysteries is deemed to be slumming; a mystery writer who takes a whack at literary fiction is being pretentious. These may be unfair characterizations, but witness the outrage that P.D. James and Martha Grimes, considered to be two of the top contemporary mystery writers, have endured in recent years when they dared to write "literary" novels.
And so it is that Walter Mosley, after four extremely successful mysteries starring the brilliantly conceived, quixotic private investigator Easy Rawlins, has written a conventional novel in "RL's Blues." It's a departure, of course, but in some ways it's similar to his mysteries. And it's a generally satisfying novel, with a major flaw that should surprise readers familiar with Mr. Mosley's work -- one of the chief characters just isn't very convincing.
Unlike some mystery authors who aren't good writers -- Lawrence Sanders, say, or Clive Cussler -- Mosley understands what makes good prose. His Rawlins mysteries are terrific evocations of the Watts area of Los Angeles after World War II. Because of Mosley's feel for characters and his eloquent, often moody sense of tone, the reader gets a real sense of the neighborhood and its inhabitants. This facility carries over to "RL's Blues" as well.
The book really is a meditation on the blues -- no surprise if you've noticed the frequent mentions of black popular music in the Easy Rawlins books. Specifically, it involves an aging bluesman, Atwater "Soupspoon" Wise, who is sick and dying in New York but whose mind, even as he slips toward death, keeps going back to his days as one of America's top bluesmen -- and to the time he was hanging out with one of the masters, Robert Johnson.
Mosley, a resident of Greenwich Village, describes both New York and the South with a discerning eye. Here is his take on Soupspoon's introduction to the blues:
"He was eleven years old the first time he heard the blues. The year was 1932. It was on a Saturday and Atwater had been hanging around at a barn party. He got to stay late because Inez forgot to send him home.
"It was Phil Wortham playing on a homemade four-string guitar with Tiny Hill working a squeeze-box. It wasn't like anything that Atwater had ever heard. The music made him want to move, and the words, the words were like the talk people talked every day, but he listened closer and he heard things that he never heard before."
Early in the novel, Soupspoon has been evicted from his New York apartment for nonpayment of rent. He is rescued by an unlikely savior, Kiki, a scrappy red-haired woman who lives in an upstairs apartment and takes him into her own place because, she tells him, he once said something nice to her in passing. She has her own wounds, both physical (from a recent stabbing) and spiritual. (a history of abuse by her father in Arkansas).
She gets him medical attention, she nurses him, and the bond between them grows. It's a moving one to watch, and Kiki's spirit and bravery are affecting, even if they are aided at times by generous swigs of Jack Daniels. She's sympathetic yet complex, and Mosley obviously took pains in developing her.
But Soupspoon seems equally undeveloped, and at times quite tiresome. Perhaps it's the difficulty in rendering an illiterate, inarticulate character both believable and sympathetic. There seems to be little depth behind his old-man cantankerousness. Mosley's ability to write of humanity in real terms is evident in his mysteries, but jarringly absent
in his depiction of Soupspoon, and detracts from what is otherwise a fine novel.
Tim Warren is a copy editor on The Evening Sun's features desk.