Was never attracted to the Easy Rawlins series, mostly because once a film is made (Devil In A Blue Dress starring Denzel Washington) it colors my own enjoyment of the book or series, having Hollywood foist their vision of characterization on me. However, I recently read The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray, and was so awed by the sheer minimalistic talent of Mosley’s work, it has forever changed me.
Providing unique insight to the struggle many – if not all – African-Americans experience, Mosley’s writing does so in a sparse yet poetic style. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a meaty story that goes on for 600 pages or more, but when a writer is able to tell a story with an economy of words without scrimping on imagery, character, or story, that is a force to behold. Reminds me of Hemingway and Mark Salzman (Lying Awake).
After reading Mosley’s most recent novel, I immediately sought out his entire body of work, starting with the outstanding Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, the piercing story of an angry ex-convict trying to find his place in a world of hate, murder, and drugs, and still manage to be a decent human being. Mosley does not give his main character, Socrates Fortlow, any characteristics that are easy to identify with. He’s unrepentant, always angry, and ready to cause harm at a moment’s notice. Yet somehow, we readers are able to identify with his all-too-human struggle to find forgiveness and love in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Though California’s much maligned Watts area is the setting, one could substitute any inner city location with equal effect. The contrast of this inner city background and several beach scenes (the Watts settings feeling claustrophobic and gritty, the beach opening up the story to countless possibilities and hope) keeps the series interesting and brings in the subtle poetic underpinnings.
In the second book, Walkin the Dog, Socrates returns and faces even greater challenges in his search for redemption and peace. Like settling into a favorite chair, rejoining the characters was at once familiar and wonderful, in spite of the dark overtones of the story and setting. Socrates struggles against his own yearnings and desires, while fighting others’ attempts to help him grow into his life of relative freedom. However, prison is never far from his mind, especially when he must make some hard choices, and not all of them turning out for the best.
Mosely infuses his writing with a dark yet wry sense of humor that’s almost so subtle, you’d miss it completely if you’re not paying attention. So even in dire circumstances, a sense of the absurd seem to seep through. It’s hard to tell if the author meant that to be so, or if it’s the result of my own sense of irony.
Though much of Mosley’s work is considered classic contemporary noir, there is a unique depth to the writing that transcends such easy definition. Having read through this series so far, I am quite eager to locate and read the rest of his work, the way one might relish a glass of cool, clear water on a sweltering day. And it’s so good going down, the next one becomes an even sweeter taste.