Old Man Blues
Walter Mosley has found fame as a mystery writer, winning popular and critical acclaim with four crime novels about flinty black investigator Easy Rawlins. With his new book, however, Mosley departs from the tried-and-true territory of the hard-boiled mystery to make a confident venture into mainstream fiction. In recounting the last days of a fictitious bluesman, Atwater “Soupspoon” Wise, the spare precision of Mosley’s prose serves him well, creating a richly hued portrait of the blues and the men who played it.
RL’s Dream (W.W. Norton & Co.), Mosley risks trading one formula, that of the noir novel, for another. Books or films about musicians easily lapse into stereotypical cautionary tales about show business. The rapture of playing before an audience, the boozy nights after gigs, the inevitable, Elvis-like declines are all staples of this kind of story. The early blues musicians are especially easy to revere, as their humble origins tend to make them symbols of both racial pride and the Americana of Horatio Alger.
The strength of RL’s Dream lies in its character study of Soupspoon, whose career as a singer-guitarist is marked by great passion but no particular success. As the book opens, Soupspoon has been evicted from his apartment and is nearly paralyzed with pain caused by the cancer in his hip and lungs. He’s saved from certain death on the New York streets by Kiki Waters, a thirtyish redhead who lives in the same building. When we meet Kiki she too seems dispossessed, having just left a hospital where she was recovering from a stabbing.
The plot follows no predictable trajectory, unfolding at a realistic, rambling pace. With the cancer in remission, Soupspoon feels greater impetus to be alive: Aware of his impending death, he’s ready to play music in public again, to see his estranged wife a final time, and to record the tales of his blues career, especially his experiences playing with legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson, the “RL” of the title.
Mosley works overtime to define the blues and what it takes to play it. Thus we get many statements like: “Blues is the devil’s music an’ we his chirren. RL was Satan’s favorite son”; “The real blues is covered by mud and blood in the Mississippi Delta”; “All bluesmen are lost”; and so on. But nothing says as much about the blues as a description on the first page, when pain plays Soupspoon’s body like a musical instrument: “Music thrummed in his body; the rattles of death in the tortured song of his breathing. Soon he was moving his head to the rhythm; even the crackling pain in his hip pulsed in time. He got back to his feet and hobbled to the new music, reeling and rocking on a river of unsteady feet. Maybe he’d die before he got there. But he’d die singing and making music out of life the way real men did it a long time ago.”
RL’s Dream stands firmly planted in the present day, but its flashback scenes prove crucial. Mosley’s descriptions of life on the Mississippi Delta are familiar but not clichéd, and he uses black vernacular with great care and wit. At times reminiscent of Toni MorRL’s Dream has a story structure and elegiac tone resembling William Kennedy’s portrait of an aging, down-and-out ex-baseball player in . Mosley never loses sight of the nature of black history, and in RL’s Dream, he uses the blues as a means to measure the present against the past, and to find songs that still speak to us all.
Rest in Peace
The Promise of Rest (Scribner) is the third novel in Reynolds Price’s Mayfield trilogy. The series follows a North Carolina family from 1903 to a hot August afternoon near Durham in 1993, when Hutchins Mayfield scatters the ashes of his only son upon the still waters of a creek. “All the history of the world ended here,” Price writes with subtle elegiac force, “in no more than six or eight fistsful of ashes.”
You need not have read the previous two novels, The Surface of Earth and The Source of Light, to understand The Promise of Rest. The book is sufficient unto itself in its full spectrum of characters and relationships, its rich and evocative language, and the powerful inevitability of its plot. Price knows what most of us try to avoid acknowledging: The great, simmering disaster of our time is AIDS.
Hutchins Mayfield, in his early 60s, is a poet and professor at Duke when his son, Wade, blinded and wasted from the disease, must be moved from his New York City apartment to Hutch’s house in North Carolina. Wade is not only Hutch’s son but, in a deeply wrenching way, his alter ego: Before he married Wade’s mother, Hutch had loved a man. Most of his life prior to marriage is chronicled in The Source of Light, but the haunting life he didn’t choose ripples in every page of The Promise of Rest as he washes and diapers his wasting boy and remembers with him moment by moment their lives together.
Wade’s death comes as no surprise. Price almost deliberately seems to avoid the baroque blare of Angels in America. The final section of the novelwhich follows the coping survivorsruns the emotional gamut from the nearly raunchy humor of the unexpected eulogy by Wade’s first lover to the mournful intensity of the final scene, when Hutch and an 8-year-old boy who may be his grandson scatter Wade’s ashes on a stream.
The Promise of Rest is a novel to read word by word: Price is a writer whose blast-furnace attention on the world is forced through words. What he says about Hutch we can say about him: “All his adult life he’d been a namer, a man whose trade was an effort to transcribe the living and dead in durable wordsthe minimal words that can summon an essence before the eyes of distant strangers and leave them better endowed for time than they presently are, alone in the solitary cells of their own lives.”Michael Kreyling
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