22 April 2010

The good, the bad, and the best

If I don't watch the bad and mediocre movies or listen to the so-so music, how will I know good stuff when I see or hear it?

Same thing is true of books. Or as the princess said, "I've got to kiss a lot of frogs to find the magic prince." That is what she said, itsn't it?

I've read lots of good books and lots of so-so books. Most of the time that I tie into a bad one, I choose not to finish it.

Then I pick up a really good book, and it's suddenly obvious that it's good. Unless I want to sit back and enjoy it, I have to do the hard work of identifying what makes it good.

I picked up Walter Mosley's The Long Fall recently. It was obviously really good. After I read the first 2 pages, I stopped and interupted Nancy's reading to read her those 2 pages. That's how good it is. Nancy, who edits several semi-pro novels every year, listened intently. "It is so good to know that there are excellent writers out there." That's how good it is.

I've liked several of the books I've read recently. I liked a couple a great deal. The Long Fall stands out as excellent against the background of the books I've read during the past year.

Oh, and here's the opening:

"I'm sorry, Mr. um?..." the skinny receptionist said. Her baby-blue-on-white nameplate merely read JULIET.

She had short blond hair that was longer in the front than in the back and wore a violet T-shirt that I was sure would expose a pierced navel if she were to stand up. Behind her was a mostly open-air-boutique-like office space with ten or twelve brightly colored plastic desks that were interspersed by big, leafy, green plants. The eastern wall, to my right, was a series of ceiling-to-floor segmented windowpanes that were not intended to open.

All the secretaries and gofers that worked for Berg, Lewis & Takayama were young and pretty, regardless of gender. All except one.

There was a chubby woman who sat in a far corner to the left, under an exit sign. She had bad skin and a utilitarian fashion sense. She was looking down, working hard. I immediately identified with her.

I imagined sitting in that corner, hating everyone else in the room.

"Mr. Brown isn't in?" I asked, ignoring Juliet's request for a name.

"He can't be disturbed."

"Couldn't you just give him a note from me?"

Juliet, who hadn't smiled once, not even when I first walked in, actually sneered, looking at me as if I were a city trash collector walking right in from my garbage truck into the White House and asking for an audience with the president.

I was wearing a suit and tie. Maybe my shoe leather was dull, but there weren't any scuffs. There were no spots on my navy lapels, but, like that woman in the corner, I was obviously out of my depth: a vacuum-cleaner salesman among high-paid lawyers, a hausfrau thrown in with a bevy of Playboy bunnies...

It had been a long time since I read one of Mosley's books. He's stopped writing about Easy Rawlins and is writing about other characters. This book is about a guy named Leonid McGill, a shady character who says he's trying to go straight. That kind of ambiguity pervades the worlds that Mosley writes about, and the world most of us live in when we're really honest with ourselves. Our ambiguities might not be as dramatic as those that Mosley's characters face, but our stories aren't likely to make good novels.

Some of Mosley's books have been excellent. Others just good. This one is somewhere in between. But it was head and shoulders above most of what I've read recently.


Besides use of language? The story hangs together. The telling of the story took me along without provoking silly questions about why and how and who. The unwrapping of the complications and consequences are carefully done. The characters are humans I can comprehend even if they're not like people I know or would want to hang with.

There's a new Leonid McGill mystery out since this one was published, and a novel about Mosley's character Socrates Fortlow that I'm tempted to follow up on. It's like running into an old friend.

Anyone else have experience with Walter Mosley's books? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

Walter Mosley's web site

• Anna Mundow's review of The Long Fall in the Washington Post

Another in a long series (about Bad Boy Brawly Brown)

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (an earlier really good book about Socrates Fortlow)

Fearless Jones (from the old pre-blog site)

The Walter Mosley page at African American Literature

• Walter Mosley talks about The Long Fall:

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