Monday, May 23, 1994

Book Review: Black Betty by Walter Mosley

Originally Appeared In The Boston Book Review

Black Betty by Walter Mosley
W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 1994
255 pp. $19.95

The impact of the first shot knocked him four feet backwards, big hands thrust out in front of him like a cartoon sleepwalker. This shooting occurs in the nightmare gripping Easy Rawlins on the first page of Black Betty. There’s a shooting on the last page of the book, as well. In between, there are no lack of fatalities due to a variety of unnatural causes. The cast of Black Betty has to be large to withstand a rate of attrition this high, and it is.

Easy Rawlins, the narrator and central figure of the novel, the fourth in which he is featured, is a black man trying to raise two adopted children in L.A.. Kennedy has been President for a year. The name of Martin Luther King rings across the land. The issue of race, never moot so far as Easy is concerned, is more volatile than ever now that desegregation is on the agenda.

When Easy wakes at dawn from his recurrent dream of the killing he witnessed five years ago, there’s a white man at the door with a photograph of a woman he wants Easy to find. If it were any other woman, Easy might refuse, despite his reputation for “finding people in the colored part of town.” But it’s Black Betty, the “great shark of a woman” in whose wake he traveled as a boy in Houston. The chance to see Betty as an adult — and to get paid for it — sets him on a chase across the color and the money line, from the black community to the desert to Beverly Hills where disaster has caught up to Betty, and where race, sex and high stakes make bad men lose no opportunity to become even worse.

Sex happens somewhat less often than in previous Easy Rawlins novels but sexuality is rife, as in Easy’s recollection of an encounter with Betty when he was “a raggedy twelve-year-old and she was more woman than I had ever seen in one place.” Betty appreciates the quality of homage in a man — or boy — and when she notices Easy’s wide eyes and flared nostrils she rewards him with a kiss that sends him stumbling to the ground. The men hanging around get a kick out of Easy sprawling but he doesn’t care. As he recalls, “I would have fallen down for her anyday. I would have jumped out of a window for her kiss.”

If you have a taste for this kind of writing — as consistently hot and smooth as a good whiskey — you’ll like Black Betty. The style comes easily to Mosley, who doesn’t fill the space between stand-out lines with the huffing and puffing noises so many mystery writers make as they bust a gut to sound noir. Like young Easy trailing Betty, you’ll follow Walter Mosley for pages just to hear him say things like, “Women with eyes so deep that most men can never know them. Women like Betty who’d lost too much to be silly or kind.” There are times in this book when nothing seems to be happening and you don’t feel impatient because most if not quite all those times the prose doesn’t quit.

Good characters abound in Black Betty, people with names like Mofass, Jewelle, Etta, and Big Hand Bruno (who can “swagger even when he was standing still”), most of them, like Easy, transplanted Southerners. Easy himself is complex — edgy, explosive and given to surges of love for his children, one of whom has been mute for years due to abuse suffered when very young. Good characters and good writing are one of the reasons for the appeal of the Easy Rawlins mysteries. The other reason goes by the name of Raymond Alexander or “Mouse.”

You don’t get a lot of Mouse in this book. You don’t need a lot. A little is almost more than Easy can bear. Mouse is short, well-dressed and elementally lethal. Right after getting out of jail for manslaughter — it was Mouse who did the shooting Easy can’t stop dreaming about — he decrees, “I’ma kill me somebody,” and Easy knows at least one more death is certain. It could even be his own death. Easy is Mouse’s best friend but that doesn’t mean Mouse won’t kill him; it just means he’s likely to feel bad about it for a while.

Whatever else Easy is doing, he’s thinking about Mouse. Other characters, other relations, are well-defined. Mouse is a question mark. Is he a part of Easy’s own psyche it makes Easy nervous to confront incarnate? Is he the man Easy lacks the guts to be, black rage summed up and crystallized into an implacable refusal to submit? At one point, Easy considers that Mouse may belong to a different order of things entirely, and that, “like an ancient pagan,” he needed “to celebrate and anoint his freedom with blood.” Easy knows Mouse can’t be deterred, only, with luck, redirected, and the target Easy supplies him with yields one of the nice surprises in the book.

The Easy Rawlins series can no more be imagined without Mouse than Scorcese’s Mean Streets can be contemplated minus Robert DeNiro’s Johnny Boy. But it would be a mistake to think Black Betty is predicated upon bloodlust. There’s a raging tenderness just beneath the surface, and not just where Easy’s children are concerned — enough tenderness to make you understand where the anger comes from. Let me end with Easy Rawlins thinking about the end to Jim Crow, and about the chains black people “wore for no crime; chains we wore for so long that they melded with our bones. We all carry them but nobody can see it — not even most of us . . . what about all those centuries in chains? Where do they go when you get free?”

That was about 1961. Maybe at some point we’ll know what Easy Rawlins has to say about 1994.

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