It’s been a long time since I read Walter Mosley’s great Easy Rawlins mysteries, set in post-war Los Angeles. Many years ago a friend gave me RL’s Dream, Mosley’s first foray outside the detective genre. I tucked the book on the shelf to read later. Almost twenty years later I found the book on the shelf last week. Curious to see what I’d missed, I plunged into the book that was described as being about the blues.
RL’s Dream is set in 1990s New York City. The book opens with Soupspoon Wise being evicted from his apartment. He’s old, broke and very sick.The moving men are putting his few possessions out on the sidewalk and telling him that Social Services will be coming to get him.Evening is falling and it is cold. At that moment, Kiki comes home from the hospital, recovering from a stab wound from a street kid. She can’t leave Soupspoon at the door, she takes him upstairs to her apartment. Thus begins a strange partnership, in which the two take turns caring for each other.
Kiki is from the South and drinks too much and is prone to fits of violence. She was sexually abused by her father, ran away and gets a paycheck from a large insurance company. To say she actually works for the company would be a stretch, and the scenes at the insurance company are pretty funny. She’s a woman slightly ahead of her time in terms of her hacking skills.
Soupspoon is a blues man, born and raised in the Mississippi delta. As a kid he listened to the music coming out of juke joints and started out playing rhythm on spoons, later working his way to guitar. He played for a short time with bluesman Robert Johnson, aka RL. Not a lot is known about Johnson, but legend has it that he was a womanizer and that he’d sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent. He died in 1938 well before his 30th birthday.
Medical treatment eases Soupspoon’s symptoms for a while, but he knows his cancer is terminal. He decides that he wants to record what he and others can remember about Johnson. He tracks down Mavis, his ex-wife and others to fulfill his last mission. He stays with Kiki. Her quasi-boyfriend, Randy, helps take care of him. Mosley’s paints all of these characters in deep colors. Their poverty is real; they know how to survive. Mavis has closed herself off from the world, heartbroken by the loss of her son, whom she lost before she married Soupspoon. Randy is a light-skinned black man who lies to himself that he is actually the son of an Arab. Kiki cannot escape the nightmares of her father’s horrific acts, but she is amazingly strong. The sequence in which she fraudulently procures insurance coverage for Soupspoon is terrific. Kiki and Soupspoon’s backstories are well written as well, you can almost smell the sweat and perfume of the dancers and players in the juke joints Soupspoon remembers in his dreams.
A few things don’t work as well. The connection to Johnson doesn’t quite work; the idea of Soupspoon hanging onto his relationship with Johnson seems forced in some way as does the seduction by an 18 year old. In addition, Soupspoon’s last name is Wise, and Mosley sometimes squeezes words of wisdom out of Soupspoon that seem kind of trite.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. Walter Mosley is a really good writer, and while this book isn’t his best, it’s a pretty darn good read.