Ageing bluesman Soupspoon Wise is down on his luck and dying of cancer. Evicted and with nowhere to go, he is taken in and tended for by an unlikely angel in the shape of Kiki Waters, a volatile young white woman with a strong taste for alcohol and a troubled past. Together they make an uneasy, turbulent combination.
Soupspoon’s life as a bluesman has been a minor, inconsequential one. He has been a journeyman who has travelled long, far and hard and all he has to his name is ‘a barren marriage behind a bare blues life’. But as a young man his soul had been touched by an encounter with Robert ‘RL’ Johnson – the legendary bluesman who according to myth traded his soul with the Devil in return for an unworldly genius. Soupspoon, still haunted by this encounter, makes one last bid to recapture the time when he’d burned most brightly. And so, with a tape recorder running in the background, he recounts his story to his half-drunken hostess. He tells of growing up in the Mississippi Delta, of memories of Robert Johnson, of playing the blues, of an existence spent in the margins of American life. The tape recording is to form his last will and testament – a romantic and ultimately hopeless attempt to leave behind a legacy to be remembered by.
Walter Mosley narrates RL’s Dream with compassion and empathy whilst always avoiding easy sentimentality. He delivers the narrative with a strong, hypnotic rhythm which carries the story along in a fluid motion. Mosley’s deft use of time and place moves the action from present day New York to the rural poverty of the Mississippi Delta of the 1920s. He flits from reality to dream and memory and back again with a tempo that never misses a beat and never jars. The overall effect is to give the book the rhythm and feeling of the blues itself. RL’s Dream is a meditation on the meaning of the blues and of its continued place in the darker corners of modern America. If the blues can be put down onto paper then this is it. Robert Johnson played them like no other, Walter Mosley writes them.
Reviewed by Jon Mitchell