Mosley’s Memory

Walter Mosely’s meditation on his first memories in The New York Times is a detailed account of awakening consciousness. Mosely, at the age of three — the year most likely is 1955  —  opens his eyes in front of the television in his parents’ home. He is suddenly flooded with images and sensations. He says, “in some essential way,” it was the beginning of his life.

“There was a sense of excitement tingling in my shoulders and thrumming at the back of my head; an electricity that made me want to laugh out loud, but I didn’t laugh…There was dark blue carpeting beneath my knees and the room I was in, the living room, was bright because of daylight that came through the windows and also from the front door of the adjacent dining room. This door was open but the screen was closed.”

What might have been stolen from this memory had the television been on?

That Mosley’s visual memory of  specific events some 55 years past are so acute and detailed isn’t so surprising in light of his fiction, which is also acutely visual and focused. His 2010 novel, The Last Days of Ptolmey Grey,  centers on a nonagenarian who suffers the consequences of reviving lost memory. But it’s safe to ask:  Does Mosely really remember all this detail? Does he really remember the floral pattern of his mother’s dress, the “spiky” feel of the grass beneath his bare feet, the paleness of the violet dahlias his father was digging with a hand trowel?

I’ve often been credited with unbelievable recall of my early years. I astonished my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles with details of an overnight stay in Children’s Hospital, a horse sticking its head through unshuttered windows one humid night on  distant cousins’ south Texas farm, the events surrounding my sisters birth; all occuring just before and when I was three. As I picture these things well over a half century later, I remember the times I remembered them and wonder if my memory is just recall of the memories, something akin to imagination, and not the memories themselves.

Mosley’s account, clearly remembered as he states, recalls the same kind of awakening Chris Ware illustrates in his last couple graphic novels as the pixels of toddler consciousness gather into image.  But Mosley goes on to express doubt at the depth of his formative memories. Nor does he attribute recollection to the mind:

The boundaries have become smaller as I have aged. The passions have receded and the sun shines less brightly. But none of that matters because the primitive heart that remembers is, in a way, eternal.

In the way a poet might, Mosley ties imagination, a creative function, to a symbol of the human spirit. It’s a brilliant piece, poignant and meaningful to our experience as well as his. —Cabbage Rabbit

Mosley’s Old Man

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a ghetto variation of the Faust myth. An aged man makes a deal with the devil so that he may settle with the past. Ptolemy Grey is 91 and living in an unkempt  South-Central Los Angeles apartment. He sleeps under the kitchen table, his toilet won’t flush and there’s a room populated by mice and roaches he won’t even enter. Being 91, Ptolemy has a lot to forget and his memory gives him trouble. He often can’t remember things. Often, he remembers at inopportune times.

Ptolemy is stoic about his condition. A nephew calls every few weeks to take him out to cash his pension check and buy groceries. Otherwise he’s alone, except for occasional visits from a drug-addicted woman who doesn’t mind beating up on him to get some money. When his nephew is killed in a drive-by, another less-compassionate relative stands in.

His life changes before his mind. At his nephew’s funeral, he meets Robyn, a 17-year old orphan who’s been taken in by Ptolemy’s extended family. Robyn cleans up the mess in his life and Ptolemy falls in love. “If you were twenty years older and I fifty less…” is a common refrain.

Ptolemy, forgetful as he is, is haunted by the past. Memories — often arriving as metaphor– flare up at odd moments. His life is consumed by incidents of regret; a fire in which he was helpless to save a friend, a down-home mentor, still whispering in his ear, who was hung, a beloved wife that died in his arms. The past is also treasure, the spoils of a “righteous crime” against racial injustice, hidden under his own floorboards.

With the best intentions, Robyn brings Ptolemy to a doctor who has an extreme treatment for dementia. “The Devil,” Ptolemy calls him. The Devil’s medicine ignites Ptolemy’s memory and brings fire to his veins. Without much life left, Ptolemy makes it his mission to do what he can do about those regrets as well as discover the reason for his nephew’s death.

The Rabbit’s often broken down Mosley’s novels into “detective”  (Easy Rawlins series) and “serious” genres (The Man In My Basement, The Right Mistake).  This book is a bit of both and something entirely different as well. The care that Mosley takes to create the fragile, vulnerable Ptolemy Grey is an insightful look into our own aging (and the miserable conditions we condemn them to as social programs are withdrawn). Mosley  grants glances into Ptolemy’s crippled consciousness and the distinct change it makes under the doctor’s medication. The mysteries resolved here are done with soul-searching and a little sleuthing. That Ptolemy unravels the cloth of his nephew’s “random” killing give the book a taste of Mosely’s mystery skills. The Last Days is equally touching and engaging, balanced with humor and full of personal revelation. It’s framing lessons, as Mosley so often states them, are centered on the black experience but universal in their message. The question here is not so much who can refuse the devil when he comes calling, but who can refuse love?–Cabbage Rabbit

Had To Have It

It’s New Years Eve on a closing decade and we’re feeling a certain obligation, though not because of any clamoring demand to, to….. We’ve never liked top-ten lists,- year-end lists, best-of-the-decade lists, that sort of thing. And for all the usual reasons. Now, as the old song goes, everybody’s doin’ it.  (Matthew Yglesias,  discussing top-ten lists,  says “One of the pernicious impacts of the rise of the internet is how everyone gets to publish their own list.”) Pernicious? In the interest of helping drive the stake in this monster’s heart, here we go. What qualifies the Rabbit? Not much. Sure, we had a long publication history back when but our appetites have always trumped taste. And our tastes tend toward the strange and eclectic. Most of all, even with our ears and wiggly nose, we could never hear/read everything we wanted let alone things we never knew. Nor do we want to be held to release dates limited to the last 365 days (see March Hare) even though we cycle through a lot of the new and now.  But in the spirit of recognition, as a means of thanks (we couldn’t have done it without you), here are the books and recordings that helped us to get through it all. Because good books and good music make life worth living.

BOOKS

The Shaghai Gesture by Gary Indiana; Two Dollar Press. For the cleverness and laughs not to mention world-wide conspiracy.

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon; Penguin Press. Genius confirmed. Did we mention world-wide conspiracy?

The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin; Copper Canyon Press. The natural world reminds an old poet what’s left to learn. Punctuation not included.

My Father’s Tears and Other Stories by John Updike; Knopf.  Mature themes (you know what I mean)  and grace from one of the great man of letters. He’ll be missed.

Report On Myself by Gregoire Bouillier; Mariner Books. And I thought I had problems.

What Love Comes To: New and Selected Poems by Ruth Stone; Copper Canyon Press. The later poems in this volume make real and worthy connection to the natural world.

The Bear from Go Down Moses by William Faulkner; Random House. What we lose when we lose wild places.

The Undiscovered Self by C. G. Jung; Atlantic, Little Brown; and The Basic Writings of C. G. Jung; The Modern Library. To understand symbol, image and archetype and because I dream.

The Future of the Image by Jacques Ranciere; Verso. Image and politics. See above.

The Complete Crumb Comics: Volume 6 “On the Crest Of a Wave” by R. Crumb. Helps us to remember when.

The Right Mistake by Walter Mosley; Basic Civitas Books. A wise man seeks patience in a cruel world.

In Search of Small Gods by Jim Harrison; Copper Canyon Press. Poems in which the mundane becomes magnificent.

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre and Frederic Lemercier; First Second. Part photo collection, part graphic novel…what makes us think our experience in Afghanistan will be different than the Soviets? 

MUSIC

Up Popped Two Lips by Henry Threadgill’s Zooid; Pi Recordings. A twisted puzzle, with oud. How does it all go together?

Cartography by Arve Henriksen; ECM. Poetic electronic and percussion landscapes from the speech-inflected trumpeter.

75 by Joe Zawinul; Heads Up. Sure, we like Brown Street better but as the last recording by a great innovator (with Wayne Shorter on a cut no less) and, well, we miss you, Joe…

Blood From the Stars by Joe Henry; Anti. The songwriter who sinks his faith in image and rhythm recalls Katrina with blues-inflected (natch) seriousness.

New York Days by Enrico Rava; ECM. Moody, intellectual, beautiful.

The Complete On the Corner Sessions by Miles Davis; Columbia. We have a weakness.

Set the Alarm For Monday by Bobby Previte; Palmetto. Keeps us in real time.

Bartok: The Six String Quartets by the Takacs Quartet; Hungaraton. Always. There’s no better way to start the day than to try and figure these out.

Radiolarians II by Medeski, Martin & Wood; Indirecto Records. Take away the groove…

The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu by Carla Bley; ECM. Jazz–now and then–and more. That’s Paolo on trumpet

The Essential Leonard Cohen; Columbia. Poetic nostalgia; don’t ask.

…and all the other life-sustaining words and sounds my addled mind has, for the moment, lost.–Cabbage Rabbit

Walter Mosley’s Socrates

The hell with Easy Rawlins. We think Socrates Fortlow, despite his unlikely given name, is Walter Mosley’s best series character. After reading Mosley’s recent The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow we went back and read Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, the 1998 collection of stories that introduced the killing hands of Socrates to Mosley’s readers. Always is no mystery, even though Socrates–as implied by the name–is full of questions, even if it’s only, “What you doin’ there, boy?”  Fortlow has spent 27 years behind bars in Indiana for rape and murder and is now in L.A. seeking something he doesn’t call redemption. He lives with the constant fear of what he is capable of.  While his immediate story is of a black man’s struggle to enter society–even at its lowest level–the more personal story is about how one makes good on past acts of evil. Fortlow’s slow-to-develop solution is a sort of self-inflicted karma. There’s no reversing what he’s done, the dead do not come back to life. Instead, his question is what can be done, what acts,  if only peripherally in the name of the dead, will make good. To begin, Socrates engages an at-risk teen who coldly slashes the throat of a pet rooster (the young man plays a central role in the follow-up book). Somewhere in the middle, he wields a death threat to achieve his end. To close, he faces death; not his own but that of a suffering friend. Murder is redeemed through murder, a finality that isn’t as contradictory as it seems. We often separate Mosley’s “thoughtful” books (The Man In My Basement,  Diabliere ) from his Rawlins and other mysteries. That’s the wrong approach. Mosley books frequently deal with redemtption as a sort of justice. Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow is a great American symbol of how evil, once renounced, can be subdued–by acts– if not fogotten. It’s a lesson, even the best of us, should take to heart.–Cabbage Rabbit

Walter Mosley In Context

The recent controversy Attorney General Eric Holder stirred when he remarked that we’re “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race made us think of Walter Mosely’s latest book The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow. Fortlow, the central figure of a couple previous Mosley works, is an aging ex-con and convicted killer who takes advantage of a windfall to establish round-table discussions that are anything but cowardly. He brings together a rather improbable group of men and women—not all black— to a South Central L.A. home where “they can take themselves seriously” and “look for a kind of wisdom” but mostly to figure out something to do:

“I know what you feelin’,” the ex-convict said. “I might as well ask you to fly. But you know people dyin’ ten thousand miles an’ one block away from here. We go to bed knowin’ it. And when we wake up it’s still true. We bring chirren into this world. We make love here. At least we could take one evenin’ every week or two and ask—just ask, what is it we could do about this shit?”

The resistance to the idea, voiced by a young gang banger, is what you might expect:

“I expected to see a room fulla black men ready t’stand up and tell the cops and the whites what we won’t take no mo.’ But instead I come into a house fulla bitches, beaners, an’ chinks. And then you got this Jew. What the fuck am I s’posed to do with that?”

It’s surprising then that most of the external conflict in the story is generated by the LAPD. And while the cast of characters may border on cliché, the discussions they generate are not. They have the sort of exchange that we need in this uncivil society but don’t seem to get. And there’s a dose of honesty that we liberals, anxious to forget our repressed biases (contrary to popular belief, the last presidential election did not prove we progressives are all cool about color) need to embrace. Socrates:

“We are all racists here. You, me, the baby inside’a Luna and the one on Cassie’s lap. In this country you born in racism, bathed in it every day of your life.”

Holder’s defenders claim the context of his remarks was overlooked. Regardless of the context, there’s no doubt he was speaking truth. I’ve often thought of the time I spent in South Central L.A., how I was welcomed into homes and businesses, be they in Watts or the Crenshaw commercial district. But I never got over the fear that I was bathed in growing up with a Southern-born grandfather and a knee-jerk racist father. Forget the slur-alert regarding Holder’s use of the word “cowards” that went out from those on the right who see America exclusively as home of the brave (and don’t you forget it). But even Mosley’s bravest characters are a bit uncomfortable at times with what they face, even if they’re just words. The point is to do something. And that’s what some Americans in this time of trouble are resisting…doing something.

Mosley’s book is more than just a conversation starter. The race questions, though played large, take a backseat to the personal issues his characters face. That’s part of Mosley’s genius. He addresses individual struggle in the larger social context. I no longer like to segregate Mosley’s crime fiction (Easy Rawlins and others) from his serious fiction (there’s no explaining how my local library classifies some of his books as mysteries and others as straight fiction). Let’s just say that, as an American author, Mosley is no coward.–Cabbage Rabbit

Souless Sucker

Even when we like them, we don’t always admire the characters in Walter Mosley’s fiction. Ben Dibbuk is no exception. A former hard-drinking, skirt-chasing angry young man, Ben has fallen into a rut thanks to a regular job and a 20 year marriage. It’s as if his soul has been sucked clean, as insinuated in the book’s title, an allusion only obsessive vampire fans and gamers might get. He’s unmoved by his circumstances: an unresponsive wife who’s probably sleeping with a co-worker, a daughter who gives it up to any guy who touches her shoulder, a Russian mistress who truly loves him, his own need for frequent, often violent sex. Things change when he’s approached by a woman from his unremembered past. Like Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books, Diablerie turns on an unsolved crime; like his straight novels (The Man In My Basement), its characters have little control over their lives. The mystery here centers on psychology and human nature, it’s less a who-done-it than why. Mosley’s raw prose carries certain rhythms, his themes are bleak, perverted and racially complicated. Mosley doesn’t shy away from the clichés of popular fiction. Dreams give clue to his anti-hero’s psyche, complications sometimes rise too conveniently and the plot is propelled by questionable titillation. Even as the roots of Ben’s soulless confusion unravel, their consequences remain. Not everything in the novel, as Ben himself muses, leads somewhere. And that’s exactly what draws the reader in.—Cabbage Rabbit