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BLUE LIGHT.\o7 By Walter Mosley (Little, Brown: 288 pp., $23)\f7

October 25, 1998|LUCRETIA STEWART | Lucretia Stewart is a critic for the London Guardian. Her novel "Making Love" will be published in May by Chatto & Windus

Imagine that you have tickets for a concert given by one of your all-time great rock idols--Bob Dylan, say, or Bruce Springsteen. You've been waiting for weeks to hear Bob--or Bruce--play one of your favorite numbers, one of his seminal songs: "Mr. Tambourine Man," perhaps, or "Born in the USA." Instead, the great man comes on and announces that recently he has been very influenced by the work of Philip Glass and that he is looking forward to sharing that influence with you in the following new songs. Your heart sinks. If you have been a fan of Walter Mosley, that is exactly the kind of disappointment you're going to experience when you read "Blue Light."

Mosley is famous for being one of President Clinton's favorite writers, also for being the author of six enormously likable and successful novels featuring a character called Easy Rawlins. His last book was a wonderful collection of linked short stories, "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned," about a man named Socrates Fortlow, that was turned into an HBO movie earlier this year.

The Rawlins stories tend to be characterized as mysteries, but it's a mistake to describe Mosley as a crime writer. Though crimes are committed in his stories, he is, like the late Patricia Highsmith, less concerned with whodunit than with what happens to those who find themselves caught up in a train of violent events beyond their control. Mosley writes about people, specifically black people in the United States, but his themes are universal: right and wrong, life and death, love and hate, jealousy, revenge, poverty, prejudice. "Blue Light," in seeking to address the same universal issues, is perhaps an attempt to throw off the mystery stereotype.

"Blue Light" defies categorization. In his dedication--to "Thucydides, the father of memory"--Mosley describes the book as a "history." If anything, the book reads like a would-be allegory. Here's an outline of the story: It's the mid-1960s, and the human race has just begun; in the Bay Area, several people are struck by a cosmic blue light that affects their DNA, causing them instantaneously to develop all sorts of skills to do with telepathy, supernatural strength and so on.

The narrator of "Blue Light" is a man called Chance, "a half-black, half-white lost soul." Chance, who has some characteristics in common with both Rawlins and Fortlow (well-meaning but often in the wrong place at the wrong time), hasn't been struck by the light (in the novel's parlance, he hasn't "witnessed" it--the evangelical tone is unlikely to be coincidental). The book contains an army of deeply unappealing characters. One is Claudia Heart, the embodiment of pure sex: No man can resist her. Her acolytes, crazed with lust and focused on Claudia to the exclusion of family, work, even sleep and food, are soon reduced to filthy, priapic skeletons.

The worst character is the Grey Man (having witnessed the light, he has become the living embodiment of Death, while inhabiting the body of a rather nice man, Horace LaFontaine). There's also a group of people who, it is not unreasonable to speculate, might still be lurking on the fringes of society, even if they hadn't had some kind of brush with the blue light. They are known as the half-lights and seem to endure the worst of both worlds, neither getting on peacefully with their old, ordinary lives nor evolving into super-beings. As if their lives weren't hard enough, the people struck by the Blue Light are quasi-vampires who regularly indulge in a repellent blood ritual either to survive or to develop into the kind of anti-Superman who characterizes a Blue Light at his or her finest.

Every time I came across one of these bloodletting (and mixing and drinking) episodes, I had to stop reading and hide the book for half an hour or so. This is because, however horrible and tedious "Blue Light" may be, Mosley is still a powerful writer: He has the power to move (as he has done to best effect in "Gone Fishin' " and in some of the Fortlow stories) and to repel, as he does steadily throughout "Blue Light." But, even here, sometimes a phrase creeps in to remind you what a good writer he is, such as when he describes the Grey Man leaning back "in a corpse's recline."

But these moments are few, and there is far too much Book of Revelations / acid-trip stuff, such as the vision Chance experiences when he is in a sanitarium after a blood ritual ordeal with Orde, high priest of the Blue Lights and Chance's mentor: "The music spoke of that spinning celestial body and of the sun's heat. There was a long-ago cry of free-forming gasses and a yearning for silence. The universe, I knew then, was alive. Alive but still awakening. And that awakening was occurring inside my head. I was a conduit. We were all conduits. With my mind I could reach out to the radiance that embraced me."

These radiant visions fill the first part of the book. Toward the end, life for the Blue Lights and their hangers-on takes a radically downward turn. I have never understood why the future (and this, despite its 1960s setting--when the human race apparently began--is a futuristic vision) is almost always portrayed as unremittingly bleak. I guess that it's because we know that human beings, ever since the Garden of Eden and subsequent Fall, tend to the bad. It's a shame when a writer like Mosley feels compelled to do the same.

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