Gone Fishin.’ – book reviews

Gone Fishin’, the first-written and latest-published
of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels, may
well be his finest work. Written in 1988, the
book is a complex work with layers of meaning,
yet it is deceptively simple and therefore easy
to read and completely absorbing. Perhaps that
is one of the marks of a classic.

Unlike the other Easy Rawlins novels.
Gone Fishin’ not a mystery. There is no enigma for Easy to
unravel, nor is the novel set in the streets of a big city. Gone
Fishin’ is a novel of initiation. It is the nucleus
from which the other novels develop.
The book takes us back to 1939, when
nineteen-year-old Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins,
living in Houston. Texas, accompanies his
friend, known as Mouse,
into the backwoods
settlement of Pariah to
demand money from
Mouse’s stepfather, daddy
Reese — money which
Mouse believes belonged to
his late mother and now rightfully
belongs to him. They do get the money, but
Mouse crosses an inevitable boundary
which leads him far from the old life.

The journey to Pariah is a journey into
the deepest recesses of the self. Perhaps
this is another mark of a classic: It moves
beyond events and encounters into the
realm of universal humanity. With vivid
descriptions, Mosley symbolically uses
settings to accentuate
young Easy’s progress in a painful rite of passage.

Nobody’s
life will ever be the same after the Pariah experience. Easy
drives a “borrowed” car at Mouse’s direction, and they pick
up a troubled young couple along the way. The road becomes
rougher and rougher, and finally they abandon the car and
travel uncharted areas into the heart of the wilderness–and
into confrontation with the unshackled self. Mosley takes us
skillfully into the forest, both the physical and the
psychological, blending realism and gothicism. We now
understand the later Easy more profoundly because we have
traveled this wild territory with him.

Characterization, in fact, is Mosley’s strength. His
characters are completely drawn — even those without major
roles. Many of them return in the later novels, and they
remain real, even though changes occur in their lives and
relationships. Mosley’s characters are rounded–no more
good or bad, wise or foolish than any of us. His understanding
of the dynamics of human behavior is apparent in Gone Fishin’
as we see the forces which created Easy and Mouse, as well
as other characters whom we meet in the subsequent novels.
Symbols and rituals abound — from Mouse’s method of
fishing, in which fish are stunned en masse by
vibrations from a gunshot above water and
then gathered, to various rituals of death,
embodied most impressively by the grinning
skull of Momma Jo’s long-dead husband
which is lovingly displayed on a shelf in
Momma Jo’s house. Mosley makes them all
believable and essential to the novel.

Various themes blend in this novel, some
of which persist in later works. For example,
the relationship between parents and children,
especially fathers and sons,
recurs in all the books. In Gone Fishin’, Mouse is initiated into
the world of murder by the ritualistic killing of daddy Reese.
Easy, on the other hand, reaches reconciliation with the
memory of his father, who deserted him when Easy was a
little boy. As he progresses farther into the wilderness and
further into the unconscious, dreams and buried memories
reveal to Easy the reason his father had to leave him: Racism
destroys not only individuals, but families as well. Easy
makes a decision which will create a different life for him. He
decides to take his father’s advice and learn to read.

Thus he
begins another journey to satisfy his thirst for learning, and to
give him increased insight into what it means to be human.
Another theme introduced in Gone Fishin’ is the complex
relationship between men and woman. Sex is important in all
the Easy Rawlins novels, and Mosley handles it sensitively.
Easy’s sexual encounter with Momma Jo, the reputed witch,
marks the beginning of his increased ability to relate to others
on intimate levels. We begin to see — as we do in all the
novels — that Easy appreciates women, but does not
necessarily understand them. Perhaps that is why his marriage
fails in White Butterfly.

Nothing is simple or one-dimensional in
Mosley’s works. Language is the medium
through which we filter ideas, yet language is a
complex manifestation of a culture’s historical
and psychological experience. Easy narrates
Gone Fishin’ inn his own language. Mosley has
mastered the technique of rendering the language
of African Americans without gross
misspellings. He utilizes the rhythms, idioms,
and syntax which have made our language
beautiful. Since most of us are bilingual — speaking
troth the Black vernacular and “proper”
English — Easy, too, speaks in both tongues.
Consequently, we not only read, we also hear
the rich voices which are so familiar.

Names are particularly effective in Gone
Fishin’, as they are in all of Mosley’s work.
“Pariah” is especially telling, as is “Mouse.”
“Easy” is short for Ezekiel, the name of the
Biblical prophet and conveyer of divine truth
who was charged by God to warn others of
coming troubles or mistakes. If you warn a
person who does not heed the warning, the
responsibility belongs to that person. But if
you know that trouble is coming and you do
not warn the person, you hear the
responsibility. Here begins the vague sense of
guilt that haunts Easy
through the other novels. In this one, he fails
to warn the young Clifton of impending death
at the machinations of Mouse. This sense of
guilt adds a dimension to Easy’s complex
character: It deepens his compassion.

After Pariah, Easy can never return to the
old life. He undergoes a symbolic death and
rebirth — first with a near-fatal bout with
grippe, and then, after his return to Houston,
with an extended period of drinking. He leaves
Houston and eventually confronts physical
death as a serviceman in World War II. Six
years later, recovering from the war, he recalls
Pariah as his life-altering experience.

“Maybe,” he reflects, “if I have a son one day,
and he asks me about the war, I’ll tell him
about the time I had in Pariah. I’ll tell him that
was my real war.”
It is a mistake to consider Walter Mosley
merely a writer of mystery novels. There are
so many dimensions, so much wisdom and
human understanding in his works that
transcend this label. At a luncheon celebrating
the publication of Gone Fishin’, Mosley said,
“My genre is Black male heroes.” I believe
that serious writers hold the key to wisdom
and thus to freedom. In this sense, Walter
Mosley himself is one of our staunchest
heroes.

Mosley’s commitment is evident in his
choice of publisher. Max Rodriguez, publisher
of Quarterly Black Review of Books, speaking to an
audience of Black authors and publishers,
suggested that each successful author should
have at least one book published by a Black
company, in order to ward off the financial
disaster which hovers over most small
publishers and to recognize the vital
importance of
Black publishers to our literary heritage.
Mosley took the idea seriously and selected
Black Classic Press, a Baltimore publishing
company established by Paul
Coates. A former Black Panther willing to go
to prison for his convictions, Coates began
publishing in 1978 in his basement. Since then,
the Press has published many I books rooted in
Black history, literature and culture; and it is still
growing. Paul Coates’s spirit and strength as well
as his expertise have made Black Classic Press an
indispensable institution.

Coates and Mosley make a great team;
Gone Fishin’ is a beautiful book.
Dr. Eugenia Collier is an essayist and
the former chairperson of the Department
of English and Language Arts at
Morgan State University.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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