Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Black, White, and Noire: Walter Mosley and Ross MacDonald

(Reflections after reading THE IVORY GRIN (1952) by Ross MacDonald and BLONDE FAITH (Grand Central, 2008) by Walter Mosley)

In one of the throw-away lines that make Walter Mosley's novels so rich, detective Easy Rawlins reflects that he is "no more a private eye than . . . any soul sitting in that [black dive, ca. 1966]. Each and every one of us was examining and evaluating clues all the time, day and night" (98).

Once the novel gets started, say, around the second page when Easy is commissioned to find a missing girl, Easy follows one lead after another to a variety of places: a low-rent duplex (behind a promotional tire two stories high), the public library, and a car dealership. Each place pits him against a challenge: How to get past the white goons who won't let him in? How to get info from the dull-eyed woman? How to get the beautiful woman to help him before the guards in the parking lot spot him on the fifth floor through the building's glass facade?

Mosley's series has progressed in real time since the first one set in the late 1940s. Now that it's 1966 in LA, and white people slam doors in Easy's face, he gets some help, as when he takes a date to the top floor of a restaurant and the hostess won't seat him, and in a wonderful scene replete with fatal possibilities as a gang of white toughs follows Easy up stairs to where he might or might not be facing another white enemy (p.119.)
Tomas Hight was the quintessential white man, the white man that all other white men wanted to be. He was tall and good - looking, strong and restrained but willing to act.... I felt gratitude toward him while at the same time feeling that he was everything that stood in the way of my freedom, my manhood, and my ultimate deliverance....

Added to my already ambivalent feelings was the deep desire in me to respect and admire this man, not because of who Tomas Hight was or what he had done but because he was the hero of all the movies, books, TV shows, newspapers, classes and elections I had witnessed in my forty-seven years. (p.121)
We don't meet the title character until midway, and it's well-done: Easy observes Faith Morel behind glass in her office at the bank where she deals with a difficult customer. Around the same time, there's a "deus ex machina" where all the answers fall into Easy's lap, and the rest of the novel isn't about finding out where or what, but about keeping the worst from happening, as things get worse and worse.

Through it all, Mosley is keeping up a steady commentary with literary roots, about black experience with American culture. Easy and the librarian discuss CATCHER IN THE RYE and how this kid Caulfield's "got it good." Easy comments "So much we know that they never even think about, and so much they think about without a thought about us," then reflects on how he doesn't have to say who "they" and "we" are:"We lived in a they - and - us world while they lived, to all appearances, alone" (p.55). Later, a character mentions Richard Wright and Mosley's predecessor, black "noire" writer Chester Himes.

Seeking another noire writer, I tried Himes and couldn't get into his novel. This time, I tried THE IVORY GRIN by Ross MacDonald, and I was impressed on every page by the author's piquant observations and witty words. His detective Lew Archer, is of course a ringer for that Tomas Hight. In his story, too, he encounters a nineteen-year old "black boy tangled in white law" (48) and, no differently from Mosley, he observes how the white cop shoots at the black man first, to ask questions later (51). The list of phrases that caught my eye is long:
an Indian woman shoots Archer a gaze "from the other end of history" (65)

the bonework beneath the matriarch's face is "like concealed artillery" (83)

driving fast along an avenue, the ocean is a "silver stream" running behind the palms that whiz by (40)
Like Mosley's scene of the blond behind thick glass, some scenes derive their fun in this book from limitations of the senses. Archer hears an encounter through the thin walls of a hotel, missing just enough muffled words to tease us. Another scene, Archer observes through a window from below, so that he can describe only shadows on the room's ceiling and the tops of heads.

As much as Mosley reflects on race, MacDonald reflects on manhood and its opposites. A group of soldiers are "babies" (12); a dandy "might inspire a Debussy tone poem" (56), which must be a slam on delicacy; there's a "womanish man" (113) and the humiliation of a weak husband (174). There's a sportsman who never took a real chance (97). Connected with this is the theme of "play - acting," a staple of noire, where no one can be trusted. A character tries on attitudes (71); a woman affects girlishness and false mother love (87).

I may not try another MacDonald, though, since this novel dissolved into ridiculousness around p. 120. Hard boiled reality turned into Gothic fantasy, and, worse, descended into some fake Freudian explanations. Mental disturbance became an easy motive, and I lost interest. Reading about MacDonald on line, I find that this was something he did a lot.

So long as there's more by Mosley, I'm spared the prospect of Freud noire.

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