A Baldwin for the '90s?

Wednesday, August 14, 1996

RL's Dream
By Walter Mosley
Serpent's Tail, London, 1995
266pp., $19.95
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

RL's Dream reminded me of the first James Baldwin novel I ever read, Another Country. Certainly Mosley, best known for his terrific noir novels set in black LA and featuring the rough and tumble Easy Rawlins, is not about to challenge Baldwin's place near the summit of literature just yet. Nevertheless, this novel bears the hallmarks of an author with an ability to convey both the despair and the hope that enmesh the lives of those suffering most from the decay caused by this rotten system.

RL's Dream is an achingly moving story of survival in modern urban United States — where the callousness of a racist, dog-eat-dog society can allow a sick old man to be evicted from his ramshackle apartment building and left on the footpath in the depth of winter. But living side by side with this alienation and decay are compassion and human solidarity.

As night after night we are subjected to TV police dramas that luridly depict the inhabitants of inner city New York or Chicago or Miami as drug-fucked evil personified, upon which a holy war must be waged, Mosley presents a different picture. It is one where, against enormous odds, the marginalised — and in many cities in the US the "marginalised" are in fact the majority — struggle to maintain their dignity, humanity and purpose in spite of the degradation that surrounds them.

"Soupspoon" Wise, a dying blues singer and contemporary of the great Robert Johnson (who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil so as to be able to sing the blues), is thrown out of his home and left for dead on the street. He is taken in by a young white woman, Kiki Waters, who herself has no shortage of troubles.

An unlikely combination, they tackle as best they can their problems and the cruel world around them, not without drama, trauma and disappointment. Kiki uses her guile to score hospital treatment for Soupspoon — he is too poor to qualify for care in the two-tier US health system — and the ageing bluesman gives Kiki friendship that she has never been able to experience before. While they don't beat the system, they at least give it a run for its money.

Central to the story is Soupspoon's account of life in the Mississippi delta and his encounter with the enigmatic Robert Johnson, a relationship that has haunted him ever since. It is also a parable of the history of the African-American people.

Walter Mosley has written what could be described as a "blues novel". Like the musical blues, it is about people who defy oppression by surviving it and loudly saying it. Mosley is an important new voice in African-American literature. He is already likened to the great black crime writer Chester Himes; only time — and future non-noir novels — will tell if he will be hailed as the James Baldwin of the '90s.