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Where Memory and Reality Intersect : Soupspoon Wise faces the winter of his life : RL'S DREAM, By Walter Mosley (W.W. Norton: $22; 267 pp.)

August 06, 1995|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Reader and author of "Cape Cod Blues" (Red Dust), a collection of poems. He is writing a book about Jack Kerouac for the University of California Press

You've got to give Walter Mosley credit for having guts. Last year, "Black Betty," the fourth novel in his Easy Rawlins mystery series, sold more than 100,000 hardcover copies and was acclaimed by no less a fan than President Clinton, who declared Mosley his favorite mystery writer. Later this summer, Denzel Washington will star as Rawlins in a motion picture adaptation of "Devil in a Blue Dress."

In the midst of all this Rawlins-mania, the time would seem right for Mosley to build a serious franchise, to crank out another dozen or so titles and establish his character as the quintessential detective hero of our time. Yet although he apparently does plan to write five more volumes about his oddly existential private eye, Mosley has chosen, for the time being, to go in the exact opposite direction--taking a break from Rawlins to publish "RL's Dream," a contemporary novel set in New York City about an aging Delta blues musician named Soupspoon Wise.

Mosley's decision is hardly out of character; he has always had a lot on his mind. The Rawlins novels, in fact, are most remarkable for the ways they transform our expectations of the hard-boiled mystery, taking familiar territory--the gritty urban landscape of post-World War II Los Angeles--and turning it inside out.

Mosley's L.A. is not that of Raymond Chandler, where tycoons and hoodlums cross paths on gambling boats anchored off the Santa Monica coast. Rather, it is a sprawl of black neighborhoods largely hidden from the history books, a shadow community within the larger city, where a unique, street-smart justice prevails.

The greatest part of Mosley's achievement lies in the way he captures the physical sense of this place, the way his characters' lives extend backward and forward beyond the boundaries of the page and the way the streets of South-Central Los Angeles vibrate with a shifting pattern of loose alliances and unresolved disputes.

With "RL's Dream," however, Mosley raises the stakes by stepping outside this individual mythology to take on the legends at the heart of black America itself. The RL of the title is none other than Robert 'RL' Johnson. He's the blues man who, according to tradition, sold his soul to the devil to master the guitar, only to die in August, 1938, at 27, when "Satan come got him in a little place outside Greenwood, Mississippi. Satan or a jealous man."

To tell the truth, Mosley's title seems a bit misleading; Johnson appears here only as a peripheral character, a figure of memory, trapped in the closed circle of the past. But if the guitarist's role is more that of a metaphor than of actual flesh and blood, he is a metaphor of vivid immediacy, for, in the world of this novel at least, he was once Soupspoon Wise's mentor, a traveling companion with whom Wise used to perform, and who, all these years afterward, remains in his protege's head with the lucency of a dream.

"RL's Dream" begins on a cold winter day in New York as Soupspoon Wise staggers away from a men's shelter on the Bowery and returns to his apartment on the Lower East Side. It is winter in Soupspoon's life also; he is tired, sick with cancer, and he very shortly finds himself thrown out into the street. While waiting for Social Services to take him away, he is rescued by Kiki, the "skinny redheaded girl from upstairs," who brings him into her home and tries to nurse him back to health.

Kiki is recovering from troubles of her own--a stab wound she received trying to help a woman who was being mugged. Together, this unlikely pair creates an alliance against the world, looking after each other in a way that combines a father-daughter tenderness with the edgy intimacy of lovers, a role that Soupspoon never quite allows them to play.

Like the Rawlins novels, "RL's Dream" is strongest in its explication of characters, with not only Soupspoon and Kiki, but the various supporting figures, functioning as fully realized human beings. Mosley doesn't write about New York with the authority he brings to Los Angeles; for him, Manhattan is little more than a gray backdrop to the action he describes.

But that's OK, for "RL's Dream" is less about life in the modern city than about the interplay between past and present, the way memory and reality intersect. Thus, although Soupspoon and Kiki may share living quarters and a certain fundamental bond, both are essentially lost in their own heads, trying to come to terms with personal history in whatever way they can.

For Kiki, the irreconcilable issue is the brutal sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, a legacy that surfaces in violent nightmares and forces her to drink herself to sleep every night. For Soupspoon, it is his relationship with Robert Johnson, ever unresolved.

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