Walter Mosley. Diablerie : a novel. NY: Bloomsbury, 2008.
Walter Mosley is one of those novelists whose involving plots and admirable, well-drawn characters reliably leave readers awed. Odd then, that his 2008 novel, Diablerie, doesn't approach the interest nor quality one normally expects. It's not a mystery, per se, though Mosley uses elements of detective stories to rescue the story once it starts getting out of control. It is, however, fit for reading on St. Valentine's Day week, since it is ultimately a love story.
The first person narrator, Ben Dibbuk, doesn't offer anything to admire, not like a Rawlins or a Fortlow or a Minton/Jones. Dibbuk, at first, seems one of those unreliable narrators whom authors use to craft irony or surprise. Ben appears to be sinking into insanity, but that's not the story Mosley wants today. Instead, Dibbuk's a story of recovery from an emotionally battered lost past and child abuse.
Ben walks around in a numb fog, tolerating his crappy marriage, a routine if adequately paid job, and a generous helping of anomie. There's a distance between him and his college student daughter that discloses a father willing to indulge a child's expensive decisions while investing not a whit of emotion in her consequences. The daughter, Seela, wants to move out of her Manhattan dormitory into a cockroach infested walkup. Actually, we don't see any cockroaches, Ben believes he can smell them infesting the spaces between the walls and floors. Much as the place turns him off, he's willing to give her the money to rent it, offering only weak protest as if he really doesn't give a hoot. He doesn't.
I'm not normally prudish but Mosley injects crude sex into the story early and often, leaving me hesitant to recommend the book to younger readers or gente who don't need to be battered by depravity nor become involved in Dibbuk's emotionless stumbling through his problems. There's a lot of marital infidelity in the story, necessitating some sex, though its graphic depiction is not required by the events; it's as if the author is stimulating his own need to talk dirty rather than illustrating the characters' strange relationships. The most "tasteful" sex scene has potential humor, when Ben visits his daughter's apartment. He hears a woman screaming in passion and thinks momentarily how awful this place that his child would have to hear the neighbors "rutting" like this, how thin the walls that his knock on Seela's door should shut up the voice. When Ben discovers that was his kid and a friend, it's not a time for comedy. Instead, to salve her embarrassment he tells her about a parallel sexual escapade from his youth.
The names of the characters lead to some strangeness, too. Dibbuk. Winston Meeks. Harvard Rollins. The character Star, AKA Barbara Knowland, reappears in Ben's life after twenty-some years, kick starting the plot. Star, it sounds like some hippy dippy past existence, but Mosley skips past the name, Ben and "Star" were just a pair of winos. Why bother to name her Star, why not just leave Barbara in place? Dibbuk stands out for its supernatural implications and all-too-appropriate description of Ben's battered personality: his father beat the love and crap out of him as a child, while his mother not only stands aside, but justifies the leather strap as a symptom of parental love. The title, Diablerie, is a bit misleading. When I spotted the novel's spine at my library I first thought Mosley had written a possession story about a real devil. Ben's mucked up, but no, he's not possessed by a real devil, only the demons born out of an alcoholic haze twenty years prior. In fact, the book's title refers to the name of a magazine Ben's wife helps edit. Maybe it's just me, but the district attorney character who poses the greatest danger to Ben's safety, is named Meeks, and all I can think of, given the banking and New York setting, is one of the crooks in the Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places, Clarence Beeks.
Diablerie is a slender work, 180 pages. Despite the weakness of the story and characters, it's generally Mosley's typically well-wrought prose that keeps the pages turning. It has a feeling of having been rushed through the editing process, however. For example, "susurration" is a wonderful onomatopoeia. Used once, it works, gliding by in the fabric of the language. Use it twice in the space of a few pages, however, and the word fails by calling attention to itself. Tropes, normally Mosley's strongest tactic, fail him, as in the simile of the fish: "...all the years that you've known me, I've been like a cold-water fish at the bottom of the lake. I haven't done a thing for you except give you Seela. I don't know how to fuck--excuse me, how to make love. My job is more boring than fungus growing in the dark. I know. . . . I just need to get back into therapy and figure out what it is that made me into such a, such a blank space."
Therein lies Mosley's challenge, to fashion something out of nothing. Springing a crew of military intelligence heavies is Mosley's version of deus ex machina. When Meeks uses his connections to send Ben to jail, Ben's pal Cass pulls some heavy strings to get Ben released into hiding in a luxurious safe house. Once the Dibbuk is saved, he discovers the possibility of love and his own salvation. He loses his wife and daughter, but seems compensated in the arms of Svetlana, the beautiful sexy grad student who unconditionally loves Ben. All this comes rushing at the reader with insufficient detail and development. One closes the covers on this with a shake of the head, thinking this bit of literary fiction one of those experiments that a famous writer gets to do owing to his fame, not because it is of such quality that it must be published. I trust Mosley and his editor will take better care of his readers the next time out.
That's the second Tuesday of February. Cuaresma time, so maybe it's good this book didn't have as much meat as I would expect from such an outstanding writer. I'm a lot late today--my internet service has been down for a day and a half. Dang, I feared some boat had dragged a cable and cut the West coast off. See you next week.
Also, here's my standard Valentine wishes to one and all (click the image for a legible view).
Or revisit La Bloga Valentine 2007 here.