Walter Mosley sits down with the California Book Club on Thursday, December 17 at 5 p.m. Pacific time. Details.
In Walter Mosley’s first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), the detective hero, Easy Rawlins, watches a white man walk into a bar on Los Angeles’s Central Avenue and observes: “When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948.” That man, however, isn’t prepared for Rawlins, the Southern California–based World War II veteran whose arrival upended the detective genre. Many readers weren’t either. By writing about Rawlins, Mosley forced crime fiction to make space for an unabashed Black male presence that had heretofore not been fully acknowledged or seen consistently since Chester Himes’s crime novels featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.
Rawlins is a product of the rich vein of modern Black representation that Mosley continues to explore in his new book, The Awkward Black Man. The 17 stories in this collection expand on notions of Black male identity in ways that connect with Mosley’s genre protagonists: Rawlins, Fearless Jones, and Leonid McGill. But they also aim for something broader.
Some of the protagonists here, including Rufus Coombs in “Pet Fly,” are as awkward as the title of the book implies. Newly graduated from Hunter College in what appears to be the 1980s, Rufus has applied for a job as a trainee in a large insurance company, only to end up as an interoffice mail clerk. Not quite belonging in his all-minority department, Rufus becomes so lonely that he befriends an insect living in his apartment. His naïve attentions to a young white secretary almost get him fired, until an older black man more highly placed in the company intervenes. This man sees potential beyond Rufus’s social gaffes and helps him get closer to a coveted trainee spot.
Salvation, redemption, and fresh starts abound for Mosley’s characters in ways that American society has denied many Blacks. In “Starting Over,” Jared Thistle, another low-level employee, is shocked, years after his wife’s infidelity, by a young office intern who tells him, “People are so afraid of dying that they don’t even live the little bit of life they have.”
“Leading from the Affair,” meanwhile, follows copy editor Frank Lassiter—nearly 60, stuck with an unfaithful girlfriend—as he reverses his fortunes, breaking free with a new love interest and a new career path as founder and editor of the online publication Broken Hearts Monthly, based on his disastrous love life.
The theme of living to the fullest, regardless of how narrow that may look, animates and propels these stories in a way that expands our definition of Black manhood. Some of the results are sublime, as in “Otis,” the story of a possibly autistic teen and his life-changing encounter with a different sort of Black boy after he runs away from home. Another standout is “Showdown on the Hudson,” a reimagined western featuring Billy Consigas, a 15-year-old Texas cowboy transplanted to modern-day Harlem who metes out justice to white racists he encounters on the subway.
Some stories, involving fateful letters that change the trajectories of the protagonists’ lives, have a timeless quality that evokes both past and present masters of the story form. Others take a turn into science fiction—a genre in which Mosley has previously written (Blue Light, Futureland). These stories are thought-provoking even as they strain credulity, a problem shared by “Breath,” a Kafkaesque narrative about a retired professor held in a hospital against his will.
Almost six decades ago, James Baldwin said something that can be applied to the American literary canon: “I began to be bugged by the teaching of American history, because it seemed that history had been taught without cognizance of my presence.” Despite the trailblazing work of writers such as Toni Morrison and more recently Edward P. Jones, James McBride, and Colson Whitehead, correcting the canon is an ongoing effort. In the brilliant and bracing The Awkward Black Man, Mosley has given us food for the journey.
Paula L. Woods is a book critic, an editor, and the author of the Charlotte Justice series of crime novels.