Quantcast

A Darker Shade of Noir | The Nation

  •  

A Darker Shade of Noir

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

One avenue of escape from this trap has been Mosley's "serious" novels, all set in the present. And though the first two take place in or near New York, where Mosley has resided since 1982, Fortunate Son returns to LA, as does the new science fiction The Wave. Like all of Mosley's ventures into shameless respectability, Fortunate Son is too schematic, essentially a fable. It's even more so than The Man in My Basement, where Sag Harbor's racial history and narrator Charles Blakey's self-destructive anomie provide welcome content, and RL's Dream, a nadir, not least because its romanticized bluesman reflects the same puritanical indifference to contemporary music Mosley deplored in his recent Nation essay (apparently somebody forced some hip-hop on him in the meantime). In Fortunate Son, Mosley's depiction of the private world the black brother creates in a secluded alley when he's just 6, of his homeless years, and even of his job in a barbecue restaurant counteract the novel's penchant for fantasy, which dictates that the crippled black brother is at key junctures incredibly lucky and the hale white brother is so gifted that nothing is denied him except happiness. Vivid and enticing, that alley sticks in the mind. But the plot sits poorly. Even in the detective novels, a villain like the ruthless favor dealer Kronin Stark would be a bit much. It's too bad Mosley needs him here--and that Stark bears a suspicious resemblance to Anniston Bennet, the man in Charles Blakey's basement. It could even be argued that where Mosley gets truly serious is in his critically neglected science fiction.

About the Author

Robert Christgau
Robert Christgau is senior editor and chief music critic of the Village Voice.

Also by the Author

A womanizing gospel king and black-pride pop star, Sam
Cooke led a short life filled with contradiction.

Billie Holiday wasn't just adored by her fans but by her
friends and colleagues as well.

Extraordinary villainy and supernatural fantasy have long bubbled beneath the surface in Mosley's work. From the start many plots have hinged on evil in high places, and few detective novelists describe so many dreams. The Fearless Jones and Socrates Fortlow books remain outlets for his old realist faith. But in Cinnamon Kiss, both the superrich Nazi and Mama Jo ratchet up his wilder tendencies, and in the sci-fi and the related 47 they take over. The slave plantation of 47 has zero room for anything but brutal, endless, unremitting labor, and in the science fiction--1998's Blue Light, 2001's Futureland and now The Wave--the heroes battle governments whose ruthlessness differs from that of a slave owner only in magnitude and scope. Yet three of the four also encompass extra-planetary energies that feel distinctly religious. In 47 it's a brother from another galaxy called Tall John--John the Conqueroo with fancier technology. In the sci-fi it's variations on a magical wave-force charged with assuring the fate of life throughout the universe. The detective-novel and science-fiction impulses are so antithetical that this notion may alienate Easy fans, and its limitations show in The Wave, an ambitious combination of futuristic horror story and mystical fairy tale into which Mosley mixes his recent life project of raising his father from the dead. But Blue Light is more substantial. Beginning in the Berkeley of the high '60s, it's an oblique tribute to a hippiedom envisioned as struggling salvation of a multicultural humankind.

Blue Light's battle between extraterrestrial forces is humanized and politicized in the little-noticed Futureland, which though clumsier structurally than Six Easy Pieces is packed with the indelible images that are the special province of the best science fiction. Where Mosley's other sci-fi is premised on an optimism in which brave men and women prevail over imminent world-death, Futureland is a nightmare--a disturbingly recognizable surveillance dystopia where adults indenture themselves to buy their parents medical care, the jobless are banished to underground warrens and justice is dispensed by computers. The longest story begins by describing the nine-hour workday of a "labor nervosa" sufferer in a windowless prod station hundreds of stories off the ground--details all too readily projected from the rationalized drudgery of post-union America. Futureland fills in the outlines of Mosley's increasingly grim and detailed political vision, and however Bushlike its setup may seem, it was completed during the presidency of Bill Clinton, whose public enthusiasm for the first Rawlins books made Mosley's career. Although Mosley detests Bush and his world war (see 2003's What Next), here the deepest evil is corporate (see 2000's Workin' on the Chain Gang). The plot is demonized B-thriller like The Formula or The Net, but the imagery is as vivid as Blade Runner or Soylent Green. As in most recent Mosley, the good guys come in many colors. But the finale, "The Nig in Me," goes back to what he knows. An international white-supremacist movement develops a virus that will kill everyone of African heritage, but a black scientist reverses the formula--instead, only those at least 12.5 percent African can survive. Having failed to save his white cubicle mate, the black protagonist encounters "three swarthy-looking white men." "Hey, nig!" they shout before shooting at him, and he escapes into the woods. The book ends with a one-sentence paragraph: "The world had started over."

It's a truism that the American detective novel admits existential doubt where the classic British model snaps shut like a jewel box. But recent history has eroded our greatest detective novelist's tolerance for the provisional. That's why he can't extricate his signature character from the '60s, why he dreams godlike interventions. Amid these stratagems, however, Mosley's attachment to social and physical detail continues to ground him. Blue Light gets the '60s; The Wave evokes LA quasi-bohemia before diving into its mysteries; Little Scarlet and Cinnamon Kiss satisfy even an Easy fan like me, who--forget Zola--wants the series to turn into Balzac. My own best hope is that Mosley's science fiction will texture cyberpunk on the William Gibson model while his detective fiction grows old with an Easy Rawlins who settles down with his better half. But I suspect Mosley has more in mind for himself than that.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size