GIVEN THE THANKLESS and, frankly, rather intimidating task of reviewing Little Green, Walter Mosley's 12th and latest installment in his wildly popular Easy Rawlins mystery series, and having just finished reading the book, I have decided the only fair thing to do is write two separate reviews.
This first one is for those of you who love Mosley and his iconic black Los Angeles private investigator Ezekiel Porterhouse Rawlins, and don't need any presumptuous sass from me assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the novel. All the "review" you require is a brief plot synopsis and the answer to a question that has been troubling you now for going on six years: is Easy Rawlins dead?
(The last time you saw the brother, after all, he appeared to be plummeting to an all-but-certain death at the end of Mosley's Blonde Faith, way back in 2007.)
You will be thrilled to know that Easy survived that near fatal car crash, if just barely, and is back on the case in the groovy and mod Los Angeles of the late 1960s, the "case" this time being the search for a young black man Easy's lethal sidekick Raymond "Mouse" Alexander wants found. It seems the boy went up to the Sunset Strip one night, called his mother to say he was going club hopping with a white girl he'd met there, and promptly disappeared. A weak and disoriented Easy, now middle-aged and only days removed from a coma, rises from his near-death bed and does what needs to be done to try and bring Evander Noon, aka "Little Green," back home safe to his mama, dropping all the knowledge, wisdom, and racist white men we've come to expect from him along the way.
Yes, Easy Rawlins is back.
(This concludes my first review. What follows is my second, intended only for those readers who prefer a little criticism in their critical analyses.)
You may recall I referred to this as a thankless job. I mean, who wants to be the nattering nabob of negativity calling out a literary icon for writing a book unworthy of his legacy? Who wants to be the only voice in the room speaking an unfortunate truth few others want to hear, let alone voice themselves?
"Not I," said The New York Times.
"Not I," said Publisher's Weekly.
So it falls to me to tell you that Walter Mosley writes better than this. He has done so many times, and will undoubtedly do so again.
This is not to say Little Green is without flashes of brilliance, of course. Mosley's considerable talent as a storyteller and flair for language are on display throughout. For instance, when he's on, writing in Easy's voice, nobody can describe a woman for you as vividly as he:
Angeline was a Negro woman by the American standards of blood and pedigree, but she wasn't what you would call black. Her skin was the color of dull steel with a hint of red just under the surface. Her salt-and-walnut hair was sparse and soft. And she hadn't achieved five feet in height even at the acme of her youth. Angeline was thin, with small, hard hands and big knuckles. Her lips sneered naturally and there was no sympathy in her watery brown eyes.
And with just a few lines, he can put you in a room you can all but touch:
The depot was a dilapidated, barnlike building with wood floors that were neither sealed nor waxed; if they ever got swept it was no more than once every other week. The eleven ten-foot-long splintery wooden benches, provided for waiting passengers, were set too close for comfort.
At his best, a piece of furniture is not simply something occupying space, but a bolt of fabric weaved into a rich and complex history lesson:
I wondered about that table. Maybe it had been constructed in some ancient Spanish canton in the twelfth or thirteenth century, moved from place to place until it found its way aboard a galleon bound for the New World. It had come to Louisiana and finally to Jo's country fortress. Now that same table, so well built that it had outlasted its own history, was in a California home that conformed to its forgotten origins.
The problem with Little Green is that these moments of brilliance stand in stark contrast to almost everything else. A discerning reader is left to wonder exactly what Mosley's editors at Doubleday — and I use the word "editors" lightly here — are getting paid for. When they came across this line in the manuscript — “The kid turned to me, his face like a fallow field in the late fall under the first frost of the season to come” — where were their little red pencils?
Or how about this one: “My other worries, seemingly of their own volition, climbed quietly into the backseat of my headlong life.” Exactly who, legally employed to edit a book manuscript, would let such a line stand?
Let's take another example. Here's Little Green explaining for Easy why he couldn't recall something of great importance earlier: "It's like . . . it's like I always remembered it, but it was in a part of my head that couldn't get to my mouth."
One more. This is Easy describing a black man who sits with his hands cuffed behind his back in a police station booking area:
Maybe those fists had beaten some hapless pedestrian to the ground, or the fingers had choked the life out of a woman that he loved so much he couldn't let go; but now those fists and fingers were like bunches of dark plantains hanging down around the crack of his butt, helpless in every way possible.
I could go on and on, but there's the issue of plot to discuss. Or maybe there isn't, because there isn't much plot to be found in Little Green. It is ostensibly a mystery — that word is right there on the book's cover, at the bottom of the Easy Rawlins certificate of authenticity logo — involving a missing persons case that Easy needs to solve. But Mosley has written Little Green, and Easy "works" the case, like a kitten in a field of butterflies. Nothing holds the attention of either for long. The order in which things happen seems to follow no logical sequence; Mosley simply takes his story, with Easy as hostage, in whatever direction moves him at the moment, a reader's expectations be damned.
And poor Easy ends up looking clueless as a result. Which may have been fine when he was supposed to be somewhat clueless — back in his early Devil in a Blue Dress days when he was only a detective in spirit. But by now, with an investigator's license in his wallet and 19 years of work experience under his belt, Easy should have some idea of how to pursue a case in a way that more strongly resembles a straight line than the flight pattern of a bumblebee.
Questions regarding Easy's sanity, let alone his competence, keep piling up, one right after another. Why doesn't he, upon finding Little Green in the hands of some very bad men who will soon be looking to kill them both, take the boy immediately home to his mother? Why does he instead keep moving the kid, who's slowly coming down off a bad LSD trip, from one perfectly good safe house to another? And why, fearing for Little Green's safety as he should, does he continue to drop him off at these safe houses like a sack of laundry, leaving him sometimes for days at a time without once giving him the most obvious direction possible: "Stay here and don't move or call anybody until I come back for you"?
Knowing there are armed thugs combing the streets of Los Angeles for her son, wouldn't you call Little Green's mother to warn her these goons might show up at her door at any minute?
And yet none of this questionable judgment can alter the fact that Easy is a special and incredible man. We know he's special and incredible because people keep telling him so, women in particular.
"You're a surprise, Easy," Ruby says dreamily.
"You're a very unusual man, Easy," says Coco, having told him upon meeting him less than an hour ago that she doesn't "waste time with men unless they're cool."
Cops and other white folk, on the other hand, don't find Easy so cool. Bigoted patrolmen seem to hassle him without cause at every turn, and no Caucasian behind a service counter ever treats him with anything but suspicion and disrespect. These incidents are clearly meant to remind us that 1967 (four years before the Ford Pinto mentioned early on in the book came into being, by the way) was still a tough time to be a black man in America. Which is true enough. But having Easy abused in this manner over and over again evokes a time and place more befitting Biloxi, Mississippi, circa 1955.
An unintended consequence of the titles Mosley's given all his Easy Rawlins novels — each includes a color of some kind — are the insistently chromatic names that keep cropping up as he shuffles old and new characters into Little Green like actors at a cattle call, trying, one is left to assume, to find a story thread to which he can commit: Jackson Blue, Christmas Black, etc. But the names that really jar, yanking one out of the book every time they appear, have nothing to do with color: Joppy Shag, Sam Sellers, Martin Martins, Clive Chester, Jammy . . .
There are other missteps in Little Green that beg the question of what creative writing MFA program Mosley's "editors" slept completely through, including an opening that has various people telling Easy, after he's emerged from his coma, what happened to him, rather than Easy telling us. Or words like "ejaculated," "posited," and "opined" being used as synonyms for "said."
Ultimately, however, these things don't matter. In fact, none of the complaints I've just made about Little Green really matter, and for a reason that can be summed up in just two words:
Despite his flighty approach to detective work; his refusal to ask the most obvious of questions when common sense would demand they be asked; his amazing habit of lucking into satisfactory resolutions to cases, rather than actually piecing them together; his inconsistent juggling of a house Negro's speech pattern with that of an educated professional, Easy Rawlins remains a character we want to spend time with. He is a decent but imperfect man whose perspective on everything from race relations in America to life after "death" carries weight and eloquence.
He is a surprise, and he is unusual, and we don't need the people around him — many as fascinating and fun to be around as he is — to tell us so.
Throughout Little Green, in order to overcome the emotional and physical trauma his near-death experience has left him with, Easy pops little vials of a magical potion Mama Jo (a "backwoods alchemist" acquaintance of his) calls "Gator's Blood." He doesn't know what's in it, but time and again this mysterious elixir gives him the strength to push upwards and onward, through, over and around his foes, giving him the feeling — as he states more than once — that he can do "almost anything."
Easy Rawlins is Walter Mosley's Gator's Blood.
With Easy as his protagonist, Mosley can do — and get away with — almost anything.