Easy Rawlins, Bob Dylan and “Little Green”
Walter Mosley’s fictional world is a fast-paced one. The great baseball pitcher Satchel Paige had five rules to live by. His most famous rule was “Don’t look back ‘cause someone might be gainin’ on you.” The primary protagonists in his novels take Satchel Paige’s advice seriously. Mosley’s most popular character, Easy Rawlins, appears in a crime fiction series set in late Twentieth Century Los Angeles. Paige’s words define Easy’s approach to life.
The streets Mosley places Rawlins in are the sunny yet poor avenues and alleyways of Los Angeles’ ghettoes. Most of the people are black or brown skinned and most of them do not like the police. It is a dislike usually based on personal experience. Like any good private eye, Easy Rawlins operates in the netherworld between the law of the Man and the law of the streets. His essentially decent soul provides him with plenty of friends in the latter and even a couple men and women in the former who he trusts.
In a world darkened by violence, deceit, corruption and outright evil, Easy Rawlins is a shimmer of hope and justice. His oftimes partner, named Mouse, is more of the sword of justice type. A killer with little remorse for most of his victims, he and Easy go back to the Louisiana swamps. Together, they carve their own little place in the environs where they exist.
Easy Rawlins most recent appearance comes in Mosley’s latest novel, Little Green. Set in the later years of the 1960s and placed in the counterculture street scene of Hollywood, Rawlins is asked by his friend Mouse to find a young man. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that Easy’s quarry left his mother’s house on a dare, was fed the hallucinogen STP by a hippie girl, and ended up being involved in a stickup of some marijuana dealers who are part of an organized crime family. The reader also discovers that Mouse is probably the person that killed the boy’s father back in Louisiana. Indeed, it is Mouse who calls the young man Little Green. As a means to salve his conscience, Mouse has anonymously sent Little Green’s mother two hundred dollars every month since the death of his father. It is certainly a truism of Mouse and easy, that, as Bob Dylan wrote, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.”
Like all good crime fiction, Mosley’s work is about much more than the story he tells. It is also about the criminality of a society and economy founded and maintained by racism and exploitation. In Easy Rawlins’ world, the venal racism of individual white policeman only too eager to jack up a black man on bullshit charges is easily surpassed by the greater racism of a system that exists because of its roots in doing exactly that on a systemic scale. As the work of James Ellroy and Gary Phillips makes only too clear, Los Angeles is a stinking pit of corruption that begins and ends with the police force. Walter Mosley’s fiction may be more accessible than either of the other two writers, but it is no less sparing in its indictment of the city and its congenital corruption.
These are what Marx labeled the lumpenproletariat: that part of society whose sole task is surviving no matter what it takes. Usually extremely poor, only occasionally employed in conventional jobs, and existing literally outside of society, the lumpen are the truly dangerous ones in the bourgeoisie’s midst. They provide respectable society with their entertainments such as illegal drugs and sex, but must be controlled at all cost. The investigator’s position in society is closer to that of the lumpen than to any other stratum. He or she understands the justice of the streets is often not the justice of the courtroom. Of course, this position outside of society means there is nothing to lose in fighting the wealthy and powerful.
Easy Rawlin’s lifelong friend Mouse comes from and exists in this stratum. The justice he understands and enforces is definitely the justice of the streets. Indeed, it is often just pure vigilantism and is as criminal in the eyes of the justice system as the criminals themselves. Simultaneously, it is recognized and feared as much as the justice of the biblical Yahweh. Although Easy has his misgivings about Mouse’s form of justice, he is neither afraid to utilize it as a threat or as a means to exact a justice the police are unwilling or unable to provide.
Little Green begins with Easy Rawlins waking from the dead after a near fatal car accident north of Los Angeles. It ends back at Rawlins’ Los Angeles ranch house in the city’s southeast, his makeshift family intact and justice served, at least for the time being. Easy Rawlins is a top notch human and very good at what he does. Walter Mosley is a top notch storyteller. The combination is entertaining, enlightening and worthwhile.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.