L.A.'s streets are still mean, but they're different - and so is Easy

Review Novel

October 14, 2007|By Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen,Los Angeles Times

Blonde Faith

An Easy Rawlins Novel

By Walter Mosley

Little, Brown / 308 pages / $25.99

For two decades, Easy Rawlins has walked the streets of Los Angeles, and the city has given him everything: friends, family, two homes, three apartment buildings, a dog and any number of people willing to pay him to fix their broken lives. Yet something's gone wrong. Two years after the riots, Watts smolders, Vietnam rages and Easy is losing it. He knows it. His friends know it. And, of course, Walter Mosley knows it.

The 10th Easy Rawlins novel is unlike any we've read. "I lit a Camel," Easy tells us early in the book, "thought about the taste of sour mash ... and climbed out of the car like Bela Lugosi from his coffin." Gone is the man once happy to own a home with an avocado tree in his front yard. Gone is the man content to nurse a drink and a smoke in a bar like Joppy's. Gone is the man whose dalliances in bed were his most reliable and consistent solace. Still the tough-minded, tough-hearted private detective of earlier novels, the Easy of Blonde Faith is haunted and more vulnerable, trying to atone for his mistakes, find love and acceptance and make it through to the next day.

This dark turn is all the darker given Mosley's considerable achievement over the years. When he introduced Easy in 1990, Mosley captured a time and place in Los Angeles' history that few writers dared imagine. It was 1948. African-American migration from the South to California was at its peak. Black nightclubs, newspapers, hotels and churches, hemmed in by the city's withering segregation policies and housing covenants, thrived on Central Avenue. The joint was jumping, and ready to blow. Since then, we've watched Easy grow from the 26-year-old sharecropper's son to a seasoned regular on the street, and we've seen how the street entered his blood. "As I got older, my profession began to take center stage in my life," he says. "I wanted to know why things happened, but not like when I was a young man. In my early life, I wanted money and women, success and respect, not for what I did but for who I was."

This evolution - this attempt to understand the why - has given the Rawlins novels their cumulative edge, yet it has never seemed enough for Mosley. In science fiction, political essays and literary fiction, he has pushed his boundaries as a writer, with significant or marginal success. Still, he kept returning to Easy. Although Blonde Faith does not have the force of Little Scarlet, perhaps the greatest novel in the series, it is indispensable as a portrait of this "unwilling detective." That's what Easy's mentor, Saul Lynx, calls him: "You're out there to help people because you hate what's happened. But really you'd rather be reading a book."

In Blonde Faith, there's no escaping the wreckage Easy views. Forget that two of his friends have gone missing. Forget that a dead man is hidden in a crate in a backyard shed, that rogue military officials are dealing drugs, and that there is a woman - no, two women - catching Easy's eye. Rescuing women and dealing with fools and thugs is a story Mosley's written before.

What's new is Easy's turmoil. It's his chafed nerves that propel the plot, so that one death reminds him of the "whole mountain of dead people" he has seen, from Louisiana to Dachau, and one armed guard brings to life all the white people who've tried to keep him down. When his home gets broken into, it shatters "every covenant the civilized world lived by." When he saves a friend's daughter from a pimp near a back alley in Watts, he struggles "to imagine how I could see myself as that child saw me: a hero filled with power and certainty."

It can be said that Mosley lays on this angst too heavily. Nonetheless, Easy's memories make his ache for Bonnie Shay, with whom he broke up in the previous novel, all the more poignant. As he tries to replace her, emotionally and sexually, he comes across as a man lost in this world yet begging to be found. When he breaks into someone's apartment, he stays there well beyond safety, confessing his life story to a new girlfriend over the phone, and in time it becomes clear that he's mourning the loss not just of Bonnie but of other women in his life, especially his mother, who died when he was a child.

But does Easy's despair come from a broken heart alone? Mosley has always linked his hero's fate with that of Los Angeles and painted a broader picture of race in America, so you have to wonder what's changed in this city in 20 years that has made Easy's surroundings so inimical to him. Clues are everywhere.

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