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Be forewarned, people: There are those who will tell you that Walter Mosley is what they call a “genre” writer. Meaning: He is one who, having memorized the conventions of a particular type of storytelling, proceeds to create works that follow the established formula. The argument finds its genesis in the fact that after four successful mystery novels, RL’s Dream, his attempt to create a “blues novel,” failed to achieve the critical and commercial success of the books preceding it. The coming-of-age novel Gone Fishin’ was also a commercial disappointment. Thus, the running opinion had it that Mosley’s talent lay in his ability to infuse noir tales with an epic Negro sensibility. In other words: Stick to the Easy Rawlins stories. So when Mosley appeared this year, reading selections from the sci-fi novel Blue Light, the voices from the cheap seats said he would trade in the conventions of one genremysteryfor anotherscience fiction.
Read the 296 pages of Blue Light and understand how far off the mark those comments were. Mosley has consistently been one of the most original imaginations in popular fiction. Even his less successful books have been attempts to navigate new terrain, to present a side of the story that hasn’t been seen before. He deigns to use particular genres but is never confined by them. Mosley’s fictional objective is to measure what Chester Himes has called the “quality of the hurt,” to chart the interior condition of the black soul in America. Last year’s Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, for example, follows the adventures of Socrates Fortlow, a massive black ex-con paroled after a 27-year stretch in the pen. In it, Mosley appears to be playing with the reductive fire of stereotype, dealing with nigger cliché. But what unfolds is a profound quest, the story of a man creating his own moral code in the midst of the corruption, hope, fear, and shattered ambition that surrounds him. The final tale, in which Fortlow, a convicted murderer, gains his understanding of life and death by watching his cancer-stricken friend euthanize himself on a park bench, is a stunning achievement of tragedy.
Blue Light is the down payment on a projected trilogy. In both form and content, the novel is a radical departure from all Mosley’s previous work. The sardonic, edgy dialogue of his Easy Rawlins series gives way to fluidly poetic narration. Socrates Fortlow never once has sex in Always Outnumbered; the cast of Blue Light engages in every act of copulation imaginable. And whereas the characters in the earlier books tend to be world-wise proletarians trying to fight their way through day-to-day life, the people of Blue Light are fantasticliterally removed from the surrounding worldand grapple with issues of metaphysical consequence.
The result is a work in which one can sense Mosley feeling his way around in new surroundings. It appears that he doesn’t know the characters of Blue Light as well as his earlier characters, and, as a consequence, plot sometimes edges out personality as a motive force. The novel, nonetheless, reads itself. Moving beyond the grim present of Always Outnumbered and the dead-broke past of his Easy Rawlins series, the new book creates a sort of hallucinogenic narration of the recent past.
The novel takes as its germinal event the arrival of mysterious rays of blue light from the farthest outposts of the universe. The light, an inexplicable type of living knowledge, is atomized by the Sun, deflected by the atmosphere, absorbed by inert soilbut the few solitary rays that strike human flesh transform those who have been struck. They are, in a manner of speaking, hard-wired with cosmic knowledge. They retain the essential elements of their charactersonly each is turned up a decibel. Once inscribed with the blue light, the 16 “Blues” become deities, each of whom manifests one dominant characteristic, becoming the healer, the teacher, and so on. And all this happens against the acid-trip setting of late-’60s San Francisco.
Mosley’s protagonist, Chance, a near-suicidal black historian, becomes the active witness to the blue light, the chronicler of its existence and of the history of those who are struck. Gravitating toward each other, they create a proto-society of Blues, which is decimated by a wildly abstracted Grim Reaper: the terminally ill Horace LaFontaine, alias Gray Man, who was struck by the light at the moment of his death and thus became the personification of death. He seeks his own kind with the ineluctable drive to erase them from existence. Here we have the creation of an abiding conflict between life and death, Blue and anti-Blue.
When the Blues and a generation of Indigo hybrids create a utopian community called Treaty, Mosley dabbles with the lines of sexuality and race, weaving around orthodoxies and creating a sort of multiracial Eden that embraces every segment of human variety. It was at this point in the novel that I became hip to the political consequences of what Mosley is laying down. The blue light, known by Chance as the “tears of God,” is, at least momentarily, a means by which humanity can rise above its station as a pitifully hopeless warring tribe. But there is a price to be exacted: The Gray Man leaks death into every pore of the world.
Possibly as a means of underscoring the gravity of the conflict, Blue Light almost literally wades through death, from the opening chapters to the end. Death, in fact, becomes the primary medium of exchange in the novel, so much so that as literary currency, it nearly becomes devalued. So many die in Gray Man’s murderous spree that the body count in Blue Light looks like that of a poorly planned assault in ‘Nam.
Gray Man is, ironically, the most brilliantly conceived and well-developed character in the novel. The internal conflict with a dead man’s conscience gives the figure a depth that exceeds his peers’. For my money, the antagonist is actually more compelling and sympathetic than the main character. And maybe that’s a good thing. At the very least, the reader is spared the mindless, one-note villainy found in comic books, soap operas, and the House Judiciary Committee.
As the first part of a trilogy, Blue Light is given to establishing sub-conflicts that will likely surface in the later installments. The conclusion of the novel is less a resolution than a type of hyphen in the wake of an apocalyptic confrontation with Gray Man. In the end, Blue Light comes off as a thoroughly original spin, far removed from its fictional siblings. Mosley works here like a musician or an athlete who has mastered the fundamentals of the game and then blows you away with the improvisations.CP