Earlier this year I mentioned that this year will be my "year of Michael Crichton"... now I might change that to my "year of Walter Mosley". Damn this book was good! I'm of those readers who don't have to read a "series" in order to enjoy it. I love reading about one of my favorite literary characters (Easy) and his extremely colorful life. I love reading how diverse circumstances helped formed him into the man he is. I started reading the Easy Rawlins "series" about five years (or so) and I started when his relationship with Bonita has been going on for a while and Jesus wasn't mute. THAT one threw me, but like I said, I didn't read this "series" in order.
White Butterfly is a classic Easy Rawlins novel with that perfect Walter Mosley touch all over the place. To call Easy a ghetto Renaissance man would not be a stretch. He seems to know everyone, everyone seems to know him, knows the right questions to ask, has best friends that would frighten Hitler, and has a soul that is as real as heat on a sidewalk. I think that is why I love reading about Easy so much. His soul. There isn't anything extraordinary about him really until you start to understand him. He's an ordinary man with a... original soul. In another time Easy might have led crowds in Birmingham. In another time Easy might have taught Plato. In another time Easy might have written a play for Shakespeare. In another time Easy might have written a prologue for W.E.B. Dubois. But in this time, in this place, in this book he's just a man. A man trying to find the killer or killers of young women.
Unfortunately, then like today, nobody cares if a Black woman is killed but the moment a white lady meets her maker all hell breaks loose. Easy is pretty much forced to take on this case to find out who is raping, brutalizing, and killing young women around L.A. The corrupt L.A.P.D. blackmails Easy to help them and then "fails" to give him the important information. In classic, unique Easy fashion he finds out what he needs to know and finds out a number of things he DOESN'T want to know. Intertwined within this story is also a story about family, a man's broken heart, a man's black soul, corrupt government looking out for us, how a woman sees her man, how this man's family sees him, and the continual test of a tested friendship.
What's the quote: "the more things change, the more they stay the same". That adage could not be truer within the pages of this novel. You'll shake your head over the dimwits in the L.A.P.D. and the practices they still use to this day even though they don't work. You'll recognize the struggle of a Black man and his family in the streets of L.A., you'll see that the need to survive back then is the same and the WAY you survive is just the same. Walter Mosley is a true living legend and his work is absolutely mesmerizing.
on December 29, 2014
The title I've used for this review of Walter Mosley's novel White Butterfly may seem awkward and pretentious. If so, it reflects my limitations, definitely not Mosley's. I wanted to make emphatically clear that this contribution to the Easy Rawlings mystery series was especially insightful, full of gutter-level wisdom, the sort of material that has the solid ring of truth in the way it illuminates the tough lives that most of us live. As far as I'm concerned, White Butterfly is more than just first-class entertaining noir, though that's plenty in itself. Beyond that, Rawlings introduces us to a valid and useful philosophy of life, one that emphasizes the inevitably uncertain, precarious, and painful aspects of day-to-day participation in the world as we know it.
Easy is Black, and he knows the special injuries, mortifications, and injuries that came with being of the wrong race in the middle of Twentieth Century U.S. However, Easy is also a man of empathy, who learns a lot as he goes along, even if the new knowledge is at odds with what he has long believed. Near the end of White Butterfly, for example, Easy acknowledges that he hadn't fully appreciated the fact that being White doesn't make one immune to difficulties that he has long known are commonplace among Blacks: "At one time I would have said that White people have ... rights but colored ones don't. But as time went by I came to understand that we're all just one step away from an anonymous grave."
Yes, being Black brings its own set of problems, and does make life more difficult. That Blackness is often an onerous burden is made tragically clear in Noel Anenberg's recent novel The Dog Boy: even decorated war heroes suffer simply because of the color of their skin. But that does not mean that life isn't hard, often brutally difficult, and sometimes truly tragic for most of us. Tough times and painful experiences seem to be inescapable parts of the human condition, and if that sort of observation seems too philosophical, even if a bit trite, so be it. It's much easier to make abstract observations than to demonstrate their concrete validity, something that Mosley, working through Easy Rawlings, does remarkably well. Good noir has always had a philosophy-of-life feel to it, and White Butterfly makes this point persuasively.
Noir protagonists, moreover, aren't the sort of whiners who fail to see that at least some of their troubles are self made. Easy Rawlings, true to the noir tradition, drinks too much. Truth be told, even by noir-protagonist standards, Easy drinks much too much. Now and then, there is an immediate, even if lame, excuse for his excessive indulgence, something sad, painful, humiliating, or just a reminder of his essential powerlessness, one guy against the world. More often, however, Easy drinks just because he likes to, though he never puts it in just that way. A guy who walks into a bar and orders a triple scotch neat for no reason other than he wants to drink it seems certain to be headed for trouble. Easy is the only character I've ever encountered who gets so drunk that he stumbles, more or less accidentally, into sex with a prostitute, and then goes home to his wife smelling of booze and cheap perfume. He wasn't even looking for sex, just on a special job for the local police, and the next thing we know his wife is telling him, quite accurately, that he smells like a whore house.
Still, Easy is not a fool or a hopeless lush. In ways that are not explained in White Butterfly, he has accumulated a substantial amount of property that is rapidly appreciating in dollar value, and he manages it quite well. The guy is rich! However, for reasons that are not explained, Easy engages in an ironic charade wherein he pretends to work for his cigar-smoking money manager, going so far as to convince his wife that he has a menial broom-pushing job working for his lone employee. Maybe he's afraid that wealthy Blacks are especially inviting targets, and for that reason he pretends to have little. But that's just a guess. Why Easy lives so modestly, keeping his other life of unspent and accumulating wealth a secret, is something that only he, and maybe his money manager, understand.
But then Easy's life is loaded with heavy-duty irony. After all, White Butterfly is organized around the ineptitude of law enforcement officials in investigating a string of murders that begins with three young Black women. Members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) are aware that Blacks, with good reason, don't trust them, an obstacle that stymies their investigation. So they grudgingly seek Easy's help, on the assumption that Blacks will be a lot more responsive to one of their own color. Easy is not stupid enough to take on job this difficult and dangerous unless the cops are leaning on him pretty hard, and they are. And thereby hangs a complex tale that leads through poverty, disease, violence, promiscuity, murder ... pretty much everything sordid that life in the noir world has traditionally had to offer, and presented by an unusually talented author through artful use of Easy Rawlings and some other truly interesting characters.
The ultimate irony comes at the very end of the novel, but however it might end, White Butterfly is a really fine book. When a work of fiction persuades its readers to see the world in a different, more truthful and sympathetic way, we've gotten more than we've bargained for. In the case of Mosley's White Butterfly, our take on the world that we share with others of all kinds is decidedly enriched, though the process may not make us any happier. That's the way it is with really excellent noir.
on April 24, 1998
Walter Mosley again demonstrates his incredible ability to recreate hard-boiled detective fiction in a fresh and original manner, but without quite the explosive shock produced by _Devil in a Blue Dress_. Perhaps Easy has simply mellowed a bit with age and marriage, but he seems neither as driven nor as angry as before. The plot twist hinges on sex again, but somehow the revelation is less believable than in Mosley's debut. Fortunately, these problems are counterbalanced by glorious writing and characters. In particular, Raymond "Mouse" Alexander--either the best or worst sidekick a detective could have--is back and in great zoot-suited, woman-chasing, enemy-demolishing form. Mosley's careful depiction of Easy's ambivalent dependence on, love for, and disgust with Mouse is a wonder of characterization. While _White Butterfly_ lacks the edge that made Mosely's previous work soar above all other detective fiction on the market, it's still an addictive, delightful page-turner, and in terms of atmosphere, Mosley is still better than any other writer.