I’m a storyteller,” says the dying old blues singer in RL’s Dream, and so he is, and a mesmerizing one at that — but then, so is his creator, Walter Mosley (Black Betty, Devil in a Blue Dress). Intimate and plainspoken, Mosley’s fifth novel — the first not to feature Easy Rawlins, the reluctant black private investigator — is both a meditation on the history and meaning of the blues and, in its sorrowful lyric, virtually a blues song itself.
On a freezing winter afternoon in the late ’80s, Atwater ”Soupspoon” Wise, 67 years old and riddled with cancer, is evicted from his New York City tenement apartment. Clutching his red-enameled, 12-string guitar, he sits on a curb lapsing in and out of hallucination. Though he’s spent the past three decades laboring as a janitor, his mind flashes with memories of his early career as a rambling musician on the Mississippi Delta. Soupspoon expects to die soon, and that’s all right with him — he just wishes it could be a more dignified passing.
Miraculously, he’s rescued by Kiki Waters, an alcoholic white neighbor just that day released from the hospital after being stabbed by a feral pack of street kids. Born in rural Arkansas, where she was molested by her father, Kiki is saintly and vicious, profane and childlike, a complicated soul with a simple code of honor: ”I don’t think somebody should just stand by if something is happening and they know it’s wrong.”
Having taken home a virtual stranger, she goes all out next to restore him to health — even committing computer fraud to generate for Soupspoon a bogus million-dollar health insurance policy, a felonious act of kindness that will, eventually, bring her to grief. Mosley, after all, isn’t telling us a fairy tale here.
As Soupspoon undergoes radiation treatment, then ”keemo” therapy (running up almost $200,000 in medical bills), Kiki, sometimes rapt, other times blind drunk, becomes an audience of one for the old bluesman’s oral history. ”I wanted to tell some stories…before they all gone,” he says, and while a cheap tape recorder turns in Kiki’s cramped apartment, he talks about his hardscrabble young manhood during the Great Depression, and of a brief, life-changing apprenticeship with the legendary singer Robert (”RL”) Johnson, whose wild-hearted, raw blues cataloged and exorcised ”all the bad things could happen” — the wide-awake bad dreams of racial violence, sudden death, and love in vain.
In the aftermath of Johnson’s murder (he was poisoned at a juke joint in August 1938), Soupspoon took up the mantle, knowing that he’d never play the blues with his mentor’s genius, but playing them anyhow, for when the music was right, and only when it was, he could be ”in love with the whole world.”
Alternating between Soupspoon’s heart-stopping recollections of the Jim Crow South and his odd-couple New York friendship with Kiki (who knows a thing or two herself about living the blues), RL’s Dream takes its time to unfold, moving almost leisurely toward its sad, redemptive conclusion. Yet every part of this novel — every page — comes alive. Charged throughout with the saving grace of human sympathy, startling and sardonically funny, Mosley’s fifth is a beautiful little masterpiece, and one probably best read while listening, very late at night, to Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. A