The same four things happen at every book reading.
The old ladies in the back row make outraged comments under their breath when the author offends their sensibilities
The weirdly dressed creative writing major asks an indecipherable question
The guy with the long hair wonders where the author gets his inspiration
Nothing else of importance is said
I could tell Walter Mosley’s appearance at Politics and Prose Thursday night was going to be different when he rolled in with a cane, black suit, black fedora and cross-trainers and started by proclaiming that the latest in his celebrated Easy Rawlins mystery series (Blonde Faith) would be the last because the capitalist swine that control the publishing industry were using its success to pigeonhole him as a genre writer in order to devalue his somewhat revolutionary ideas. Of course this is as paranoid as it is utterly factual, and it set the tone for the evening nicely—plain, hard truth is still as innovative a literary device as any post-modern meta-whatever.
This chapter was the perfect microcosm of his writing, containing both extended existential dread and the phrase:
“How much to suck my dick?” (Certainly the first time I’ve seen a mother reach over and physically cover her teenage son’s ears in a bookstore.)
Like all of the Easy Rawlins stories, it begins with the hero feeling like shit while solving other people’s problems. It makes sense that Mosley didn’t start writing at all until his early 30s, because his protagonists are always struggling with grown-up issues that defy both the loner conventions of mystery genres and the whining of standard literary fiction.
Easy is an atypical noir detective, not necessarily because of his race, but because of his connections to an extended family of adopted children and dependent adults. Everyone needs Easy for his strength and honesty, but this position in the community comes at the cost of his sanity sometimes, as the responsibility of being the kind of hero who comes home to make lunch for your kids can be a terrible burden when you can’t protect them or anyone from the fucked-up world of racism, greed, and ignorance.
This kind of cynicism coupled with personal accountability makes Mosley as much at home in DC as he is in his favorite setting, LA. He has no time for the Hollywood Mannequin scenes that populate a lot of the literature from that town, and it’s no surprise that the writer who most emulates his style and system is this city’s own inadaptable George Pelecanos.
It’s also not surprising that he said he wasn’t too enthusiastic about another Easy Rawlins movie after the relative non-blockbustage of “Devil In A Blue Dress.”
“Mos Def and some other people are interested,” he said, “But, you know, it’s Hollywood. I don’t believe anything anyone says from that world, and I don’t really care.” Later he recalled how to some publisher’s wishes that he could rework scenes from his novels to be more filmic he’s responded, “I’ve got nothing against writers who write for the screen, but if I did that, I wouldn’t be a novelist at all.” So much of these novels go on inside the main character’s head, as he struggles with demons both personal and ethical, almost more moody Clint Eastwood Western that stylish whodunit.
As the question period went on he did run into some painfully rote inquiries, (for the record he has no idea where he gets his inspiration, but he does know that any author that gives a different answer is a liar) yet he usually managed to deflect even the most banal questions with snappy replies. When someone asked him if he is writing any non-fiction he launched into a sneaky diatribe about politics because of a new project he’s working on.
“Everyone says you have to vote…that your vote is your voice and that if you don’t vote you don’t get to complain. Well, Bullshit.
You people know, you live in DC, you see the same faces come in and out of the city with different agendas but the same lobbyists behind the scenes making all the real decisions. Your vote doesn’t really mean anything.” But he is working on an alternative, a sort of Craigslist for Special Interest groups that could use Dean-style fundraising techniques to spread money and volunteer manpower among grassroots organizations, across party and ideological lines to help them become as powerful a force in legislative politics as pharmaceutical companies or unions. His focus is wide, but he stressed that his fellow black people needed a particular boost in participation in political action.
“It’s easy to blame white people for everything…and we can prove it too!”
(A statement which drew that special kind of big laugh where white people guffaw louder than their black neighbors to show no hard feelings—except for the two old ladies behind me who muttered something outraged) “But that doesn’t change anything our current situation. And that is as bad as it ever has been.” Heavy lifting for a crowd that might mostly have come to find out whether Easy really died at the end of this final novel. (Spoiler: Impossible to say and the man isn’t giving any clues.)
I continued the trend of boring gutless questions (and weird dressing) by asking him whether he thought the limitations of mystery or any genre were all in the eyes of the critics or in the rules and tropes of the genres themselves. He was pretty clear: “The people in the universities have decided that books that are entertaining are not as important as books that satisfy their craving for interpretation.
They forget that all the great writing started out as entertainment, whose first job was to appeal to a large audience. Shakespeare’s plays, Dickens’ serials, even the ancient Greeks needed to win contests!”
Perhaps this is a suspect line of thinking for a supposed critic of rabid capitalism, but he does have a decisive point. Why is boredom a prerequisite for a book’s success in the canon? Why can’t a book that contains a truly awesome blowjob win a Nobel Prize?
It’s hard to say which is more offensive: the marginalization of a writer like Mosley as a mystery author or as a black author.
In many ways this is the true subject of his books. In novels, Private Investigators work in a different world than regular folks, but in Mosley’s vision that is analogous to the world that blacks and other minorities live in everyday. Easy says in Blonde Faith: “I had a card that told anyone who was interested that I was a detective, but I was no more a private eye than Jack or Johnson or Gara or any soul…each and every one of us was examining and evaluating clues all the time.” Mosley will continue to write mysteries as well as so-called “literary” fiction (and more science fiction too hopefully), but it’s safe to say that everything he does will be infused with the same jolting poison of reality that can even come across at a lowly book signing