Sunday, November 21, 2010

White Butterfly

So, I believe I was perusing through different crime-noir authors on Wikipedia because I wanted to buy a few novels and get a sense of the genre for my own attempt at writing. I don’t remember if I first (inevitably) came upon Raymond Chandler, which led me, through some subtle mentioning or other, into Walter Mosley, or if I was randomly reading about the film adaptation of “Devil in a Blue Dress”, which led me to read about the original book and the author. Either way, the title of this book caught my eye and, even though I suspected certain generic racism-themed views that I loathe would come up, as well as the plot not really being that attention-grabbing, I bought it anyway just to expose myself to Mosley’s work. And to also get to know more quality black literature, which is in contrast with deplorable tripe such as this, and this. Ultimately, I will not deny that Mosley is a good writer, painting the scenery and culture of the time period in which this takes place with good detail and channeling the matter-of-fact, deducing voice of the noir detective well. But, since what I said in the third sentence has not only come to fruition in the writing but was peppered incessantly and spread wide amongst the narrative itself, for personal reasons I certainly shall not be purchasing another of Mosley’s books again.

Usually, in this paragraph I’d write my own summary of what the book is about, but I finished it in August and all the details I would’ve liked to include that the back of the book leaves out has left me. So, I shall just give you what’s written there.
“The police don’t show up on Easy Rawlins’s doorstep until the third girl dies. It’s Los Angeles, 1956, and it takes more than one murdered black girl before the cops get interested. Now they need Easy. As he says: “I was worth a precinct full of detectives when the cops needed the word in the ghetto.” But Easy turns them down. He’s married now, a father – and his detective days are over. Then a white college coed dies the same brutal death, and the cops put the heat on Easy: If he doesn’t help, his best friend is headed for jail. So Easy’s back, walking the midnight streets of Watts and the darker, twisted avenues of a cunning killer’s mind…”
As a quick note, I didn’t get the journey into the “twisted avenues of a cunning killer’s mind” angle at any point in the story. The novel was cultural, somewhat historical, and definitely racial, but not very psychological. But speaking of racial: as I’ve said above, there is undeniably good quality writing. Mosley gives a myriad of succinct descriptions of life in the underworld elements of L.A., ranging from territorial drug-dealers who populate the dance clubs to older jazz club owners who also pimp out their waitresses. The variety of characters are unique and interesting…for the most part. The collective of them reflects the depth of impact and change from historical, political and industrial events.

The thing is, I keep coming across sentences like this:
One describing the light-skinned LAPD cop Naylor Quinton:
“Is this your baby?” he asked. Quinten was from back east, he spoke like an educated white Northerner.”
This, talking about Rawlins reading a Plato text:
“I wondered at how it would be to be a white man; a man who felt that he belonged.”
Rawlins on a black woman’s hair:
“She smiled with perfect little pearls along her pink gums. Mrs. Keaton was small and wiry. She had the same color hair as Gabby Lee [his wife’s friend]. But Mrs. Keaton’s color came out of a bottle, whereas Gabby’s had come from the genetic war white men have waged on black women for centuries.”
And this, the cream-of-the-crop that really embodied the absurdity this story sometimes ventured into, which speaks about the above-mentioned Mrs. Keaton, a white librarian:
“All Mrs. Keaton had was the Ninety-third Street branch. She treated the people who came in there like her siblings and she treated the children like her own. If you were a regular at the library she’d bake you a cake on your birthday and save the books you loved under the front desk.
We were on a first-name basis, Stella and I, but I was unhappy that she held that job. I was unhappy because even though Stella was nice, she was still a white woman. A white woman from a place where there were only white Christians. To her Shakespeare was a god. I didn’t mind that, but what did she know about the folk tales and riddles and stories colored folks had been telling for centuries? What did she know about the language we spoke?
I always heard her correcting children’s speech. “Not ‘I is,’ she’d say. “It’s ‘I am.’”
And, of course, she was right. It’s just that little colored children listening to that proper white woman would never hear their own cadence in her words. They’d come to believe that they would have to abandon their own language and stories to become a part of her educated world. They would have to forfeit Waller for Mozart and Remus for Puck. They would enter a world where only white people spoke. And no matter how articulate Dickens and Voltaire were, those children wouldn’t have their own examples in the house of learning – the library.
I had argued with Stella about these things before. She was sensitive about them but when you told her that some man standing on a street corner telling bawdy tales was something like Chaucer she’d crinkle her nose and shake her head. She was always respectful, though. They often take the kindest white people to colonize the colored community. But as kind as Mrs. Keaton was she reflected an alien view to our people.”
I believe this book is more for white people who want to escape to a new world and Black Nationalists who want to be reminded of and empowered by certain values and viewpoints. I mean, I can sit here and be told that I’m naïve or blind for not realizing that these were the harsh realities of the 1950’s as well as the present time. I can be told that he’s absolutely right because black children are taught in schools that solely emphasize white historical figures and events and neglect important black leaders. I can be speeched about how there’s some great spiritual disconnect from the original African cultures, stories and heroes from which these children stem and that they will always be lost and unaccepted in a white world. Fine and dandy, but none of that takes away from the fact that all of the above quotes are tired, generic clichés.

I’m not going to go into my history with people who thrive on pushing this stuff on those who aren’t as strongly convicted as they are, but there are is obviously a foolish lack of individualism here that could possibly be the answer in bridging the gap between races and classes. Black history and culture can be just as objective as it is subjective, meaning that does not take actually being black to understand. Nor does it take being black to understand being ostracized or enslaved or discriminated against. Blacks have an extensive and particular history with these things, but they aren’t the only ones. And just because Stella isn’t babbling on about “the folk tales and riddles and stories colored folks had been telling for centuries” doesn’t mean that she can’t have experiences or knowledge that can be just as important or enlightening. It’s not even like it feels as though this is just the character talking and not the author, or that it makes sense for these views to be here because of the 1950’s social atmosphere. The clichés just sound like rants written independent of any of those things for the sole purpose of………I don’t even know. Perhaps Mosley is angry at the notion that people don’t realize how evil and ignorant white people are.

At any rate, I can understand the comparisons of Mosley to Raymond Chandler and other great detective fiction writers. His imagery and narrative voice are captivating. But many of the passages of the novel render the story tired and impotent before it even really starts. I won't put it in the garbage label, but I will have to pass on the rest of Mosley’s work.

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Bollocks, what's your bloody take on things then?