Novel of the week

Blue Light

Walter Mosley <em>Serpent's Tail, 304pp, £9.99</em>

When novelists run out of steam they invariably turn to allegorical science fiction. Sometimes they play with crime fiction, but it is, in its way, too demanding as a genre for exhausted writers, and they usually end up rendering the mystery element as an "interesting" sub-plot, designed to display their technical versatility. In Blue Light it is hard to work out where Walter Mosley is going. The novel is a species of sci-fi allegory, but the effect is an amalgam of styles and ideas, ranging from the obscure to the embarrassingly banal.

The problem is the box in which African American writers are trapped. Ten years ago, for instance, Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress had a fair-to-middling readership among crime buffs.Then when Bill Clinton was elected he revealed that one of his favourite writers was Mosley - Walt's reputation went through the roof. From being an average crime writer, he suddenly became the world's guru on all things racial.

In a sense, he was perfect for the role. His books were set in the comfortably distant past, before Civil Rights, before Black Power, before O J Simpson or the Reverend Al Sharpton. For middle-aged fans of the blues, jazz and Chester Himes, his fiction was a welcome blast of nostalgia, material for a liberal patronage which has long since become incongruous. At literary festivals, his appearances struck the familiar chords, franking the liberal credentials of the organisers and the audiences, offering up the illusion of an anti-racism without conflict or pain.

On the other hand, like every other African American novelist of note, Mosley's world ends where the story of race in the contemporary US begins: that is, at the start of Civil Rights. Typically, black writers in the US have been confined to the far side of this historical barrier, occupying grounds that have been extensively surveyed and mined. Leaving aside the occasional forays of writers such as John Updike and Tom Wolfe, American literature has practically nothing to say about race after Kennedy's death. This is a straitjacket that gives most contemporary African American fiction the intellectual vigour of a waxworks museum. In a world where ethnicity and class are increasingly giving rise to complex and fragmented issues, the old black versus white equations begin to seem tired and archaic.

Blue Light may be a valiant attempt to square the circle. In San Francisco, in the mid-1960s, a cosmic blue light strikes a group of people, transforming them into super- versions of whatever they were doing at the time. One of them, in the process of dying, becomes the embodiment of death, and sets out to track down and kill the others.

The survivors of the blue light wind up living in a sentient forest, tending the trees, bonding and engaging in various New Age rituals, rather like an updated bunch of Tolkien hobbits, guided by a Gandalf-clone, Juan Thrombone. They all have cute names: the narrator, for instance, is called Chance, and there is Alacrity, once a wild-child drop-out, who becomes a beautiful woman warrior swinging through the trees in perfect confidence. Then the Gray Man of death arrives, becoming embroiled in a struggle with Thrombone; and the pair of them are eventually devoured by the roots of the Bellowing Trees.

It all adds up to a fable that articulates similar ideas to those in the Easy Rawlins cycle - a cycle that retreats into the archaic world of tightly knit Southern black communities of the 1940s and 1950s. This time the escape from bigotry is represented as a flight into an ecological, New Age idealism. Mosley's success has long been associated with a romanticised stereotype of American blackness. Blue Light seems to indicate that he is aware of the extent to which he is trapped in a cul-de-sac of racial expectations and is looking, unsuccessfully so far, for a way out.

Mike Phillips's latest novel is "The Dancing Face" (HarperCollins, £6.99)