For a decade, Walter Mosley has entertained us with the exploits of Easy Rawlins. Slick and worldly, but usually hard up for cash, Rawlins, a World War II vet living in Los Angeles just after the war, frequently finds himself running errands for someone he doesn't know very well. Between sipping whiskey at Joppy's bar and chasing after lovely ladies, Rawlins' missions, usually into the back alleys of the black parts of town, involve him in intrigue, whether he's tracking down a Francophone beauty with a penchant for black men, or searching for a missing housekeeper known as Black Betty.

Mosley fans who have been waiting anxiously for Easy's latest adventure will be disappointed that Walter Mosley's latest is not detective fiction, or fiction at all. With "Workin' on the Chain Gang" (Ballantine, 118 pp.), Mosley has turned his hand to cultural criticism.

The message of "Chain Gang" is simple: Americans are shackled by capitalism. We no longer value anything other than profit; our worth is determined by how much money we produce. Most Americans, working-class and middle-class alike, give our lives to faceless employers who cut us off without a second thought if our employment compromises profit margins.

Black folks, Mosley points out, have been dealing with this since they came from Africa; now everyone is dealing with the same problems. "The problem facing Americans today," he writes, "does not originate from racial conflict. The problem is the enslavement of a whole nation to the rather small and insignificant goals of the few who own (or control) everything." Slaves have been replaced by "neoslaves," who must pay for their own food and clothing, take care of their own medical bills and look after their own pension, and figure out a way to get to work on time, all the time. "In return she is paid a salary, which she can dispose of in any way she pleases."

Mosley doesn't harp on the plight of black men. White America, he suggests, is bound by the same "cold chains" as black Americans. African-Americans, he says, have long known what whites are just beginning to understand: "not to believe the promises of politicians and corporate leaders." Capitalism, after all, is colorblind. Indeed, Mosley suggests white Americans learn a thing or two from African-Americans, who know how to navigate in a hostile world.

Easy Rawlins fans will object, rightly, that "Workin' On the Chain Gang" simply makes explicit the politics found in Mosley's mysteries. On the third page of "Devil in a Blue Dress," Mosley's breakthrough 1990 novel, readers learn what Mosley thinks of the world. Easy tells Mr. Albright, a wealthy client, that he's just been fired from his job at Champion Aircraft. "That's too bad," Albright commiserates. "You know these big companies don't give a damn about you. The budget doesn't balance right and they let ten family men go."

Later Albright takes politicians to task: "The law ... is made by the rich people so that the poor people can't get ahead."

In 1991's "A Red Death," the FBI hires Rawlins to keep tabs on a Jewish communist named Chaim Wenzler, who has been organizing at local plants and has begun making contacts at local black churches. At first faintly suspicious of Wenzler, Easy grows to love him, and to appreciate his political views. Wenzler's daughter Shirley has a lot to say about Nazi concentration camps and the plight of industrial workers. Shirley asks Easy if he thinks he could have saved the life of a woman who, she thinks, killed herself because she was about to get evicted from her apartment:

"We are all of us trapped, Mr. Rawlins. If you can't pay the rent you die."
"That ain't right," I said.

Her eyes brightened even more and she smiled at me.

"No, Mr. Rawlins. It is wrong." It sounded so true and so final that I couldn't think of anything to say."

The fact is, Easy Rawlins novels make Mosley's political points more effectively than "Workin' On the Chain Gang." which is at times heavy-handed and tendentious. Mosley doesn't hide his admiration for James Baldwin, whom he invokes in "Chain Gang" (and whose world-weary gaze Mosley even seems to be imitating in his publicity photo).

"Workin' On the Chain Gang," while bracing, lacks the intricacy-not to mention the flair--of Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time." Mosley's moral universe is a captivating, if not entirely comfortable, place. I'd rather be guided there by Easy Rawlins, who knows how to relax at Joppy's, than by Mosley dressed up as starchy cultural critic.

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