Monthly Archives: March 2012

Dear Walter Mosley,

Devil in a Blue Dress

Thanks for the memories. Really. Your period PI-based mystery Devil in a Blue Dress always takes me back to the Fifties, back to the Twentieth Century to remind me of how precarious life was for blacks before the Civil Rights Movement. Or, as your hero and narrator, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlings, puts it, “…life was hard back then and you just had to take the bad along with the worse if you wanted to survive.” Easy is my tour guide through the black bars of long ago LA and through that city’s prisons, offices, and neighborhoods. Like you, I’m old enough to remember pre-Civil Rights America, and my memories aren’t pretty. So whenever I hear conservative pundits blame America’s current problems on changes wrought in a utopian US by the Sixties, I want to sit them down with a copy of Devil in a Blue Dress. Your novel inspired me to consider writing my own historical mystery belying the sanitized revision of those “good ol’ days” that many “good ol’ boys” recall so fondly.

Levittown House 1948

The story Easy tells is full of sex and violence, but his voice is well, easy, and his personality cool and, dare I say it, sweet. You leave it to Mouse, Easy’s crazy friend and sidekick, to do most of the dirty work. That way when Mouse shoots a killer aiming for Easy in Easy’s living room, Easy is free to worry about whether the dead man’s blood is staining his sofa. In fact, Easy’s domesticity, his love for his modest home with its little yard where he waters his dahlias, is touching. To earn the bungalow that defines the American Dream, Easy served his country admirably, survived, and then worked in a factory. When a racist manager fires him from his factory job, Easy’s not going to let his mortgage go unpaid and risk losing his house. Instead, he turns his free time, his need for mortgage money, and a highly suspect request into a new career as a private investigator. By the end of the book, Easy’s his own boss, in business for himself. Move over Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade!

Tuskagee Airmen WW II

Easy was raised in Texas and migrated to LA after he returned from military service in a black unit overseas. He and his Texas friends are outsiders in LA and in America too. The devil of the title is also an outsider, a mixed race Texas transplant “passing” as white. As the son of a Jewish woman and an African-American man, you are familiar with issues of American identity that affect us all and reflect our own complex history, a history too often revised by vote-seeking politicians. It’s ironic that it’s left to fiction writers like you to give us facts while many of our candidates for public office spin the past into moralizing myths.

Interracial Couple

One of those myths you use Easy to debunk is that of the African-American male as Willie Horton, a brutish criminal lusting after white women.

Noose

Easy barely has time to lust after any woman before she comes on to him. By the end of Devil in a Blue Dress, he has not only rescued and bedded the damsel in distress, but also saved a child and a friend. And he’s come to terms with those necessary compromises one makes to survive. He’s still an outsider, but he’s shrewd enough to use his considerable resources to stake out, lay claim to, and hold onto his piece of the American Dream. And reading about how he does this always keeps me turning pages far into the night. And then it leaves me wide awake, thinking about how to make up believable characters who are also outsiders trying to hold onto their own homes and to their own piece of that precious American dream. Thank you for Easy and the gripping and gritty stories you tell about him and about those “good ol’ days.”

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Historical mystery, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Jonathan Franzen,

The Corrections

Who knew I’d ever write to thank you for The Corrections? I almost put your novel down shortly after I started it. Your bleak description of that aging, anxious, and afflicted couple, Enid and Al Lambert, scared the hell out of me. It conjured up memories of my own parents’ sad and slow declines. But even more disheartening, your portrait of Enid and Al mirrored my worst fears for my own future and that of my husband Phil. Like Al, Phil suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, and after ten years his meds were far less effective than they had been, so his symptoms were very troublesome and becoming worse. I imagined the day when my brilliant husband would, like Al, “lack the neurological wherewithal” to cope, when Phil too would pee in paint cans and his occasional naps would “deepen towards enchantment.” As I read, it was hard not to see Phil turning into a less belligerent version of Al while I played Enid. For like her, I find “empty hours a sinus in which

Some Parkinson's Symptoms

infections breed” and live with the “alarm bell of anxiety” always tolling in my head.  Your indelible word pictures confirmed my grim vision of the days to come. I was too upset to be amused when you introduced Enid and Chip’s narcissistic, snotty, and misogynistic son Chip. Only my vindictive desire to see which woman would dump Chip next kept me reading. In spite of myself, I was hooked.

Oprah Promoting Reading

Then before I could finish the book, you pulled a Komen and dissed Oprah.  Now, unlike you as you describe yourself in your 02/13 & 20/12 New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton, I don’t usually let a novelist’s extra-literary misbehavior─ “posturing” drinking, using drugs, making politically incorrect slurs, being unfaithful and/or promiscuous, or committing suicide─ influence my literary preferences or experiences. No, for me, what happens outside the books stays outside the books. But for nearly forty years as a high school English teacher and then as a community college English prof I busted my hump to get students to read more and had only limited success. Then, seemingly overnight, Oprah made reading and writers hip. Thanks to her, many of my students did begin reading more, and to this day I remain grateful. So when I read of your gaffe/stunt, I was glad I’d gotten The Corrections from the library instead of buying a copy. I didn’t want a sexist, racist, and classist snob like I figured you must be to profit from my purchase. But because I wanted to find out what happened to the Lamberts, I read on. I was amazed and relieved when you granted most of the beleaguered family and this overwrought reader a fairly happy ending.

But by the time I got to that ending, I was worried about my library fine. As you know better than most, The Corrections is long and took you seven years to write. I was writing one Bel Barrett mystery a year, often while teaching full-time. Later, after I had spent five years researching and writing The Bones and the Book, the still unfinished manuscript was longer than the longest book I’d ever written. I felt as if I were twelve months pregnant. Over and over I reminded myself, “Not to worry. The Corrections is much longer and Franzen spent seven years on it.”

Very Pregnant

Freedomis long too. But, perhaps because I recognized the characters without over identifying with any of them, I got the satire right away, and this time around I enjoyed

Freedom

the wealth of wit and attention you lavish on our world. One of my favorite scenes finds Joey in the bathroom of a hotel room he’s sharing with a beautiful woman who is not his long suffering wife. To rescue his wedding ring, which he’s swallowed and expelled, he gropes for it in the toilet full of his own turds.  The fact that a similar scenario

figured in an episode of Two and a Half Men leads me to believe that maybe Chuck Lorre shares my enthusiasm for scatological fishing expeditions. We’re not alone. A half century ago, J. P. Donleavy wrote The Ginger Man which includes a scene featuring an overworked and under appreciated housewife ironing in the kitchen below a bathroom in which her husband is shitting. When the ceiling gives way, the poor, beleaguered woman is showered by excrement. I find it noteworthy that in our more egalitarian era the shit that so often happens to the married is now shared by husbands as well as wives. This just may be a sign of progress, and I’m not surprised you picked up on it.

It’s really hard to write serious fiction that is also comic, but you are very accomplished at it. Thanks for your provocative and witty books (and for apologizing to Oprah).

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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