More on Mouse: Pinchas, part 2

More on Mouse

[addendum to dvar Torah, “Pinchas and the Scary Friend”]

Many hard-boiled detectives have their “scary friend.” But Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins’ friend Raymond (Mouse), is something else again. Mouse is written by Walter Mosley as a true psychopath.

To illustrate: At one point early in the series, Easy asks why Mouse has just killed a man, and Mouse responds:

You said don’t shoot him, right? Well I didn’t; I choked… look, Easy – if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?

On the DVD of “Devil in a Blue Dress,” the only Easy Rawlins story made into a movie so far, there’s a special feature showing the actor Don Cheadle (Raymond, aka Mouse) busting out in laughter the first few times he tries to deliver those lines, so absurd to any sane person. When Cheadle finally gets it, the character he’s created is terrifying. Cheadle’s portrayal helps us understand why Easy would like to distance himself from this man, even as we realize that the detective would be dead without his friend’s help.

The extreme nature of Mouse’s personality makes it all the more interesting, I think, that Mosley wrote this man so deeply into Easy’s life. The author could have chosen to rely on any number of fixers, who show up for a minute, do what needs doing, and then disappear. It happens often enough in this kind of fiction.

“You know,” Mosley observes, “you can have the existentialist detective. He’s all alone; he may know somebody, but that person’s only going to appear in one book, and then it’s over. But Easy, he works with people. He trades favors. That’s part of how he lives.”
— from David Ulin’s LA Times interview with Mosley


Moreover, Easy informally adopted two young people, Feather and Jesus, over the course of his fictional years. This makes him less willing to take the chances that a lone character, like Sam Spade, might have. But it also gives him more to protect. The question often becomes, then, when to protect the kids from Mouse (and other rough elements in the universe) and when to protect them with Mouse etal. This is the question to which “house burning down and fire department on strike” is the answer.

What Distance is “Safe”?

There is no evidence, in the Torah text or centuries of commentary, to suggest that Pinchas is a psychopath. I do think, however, that there are parallels between the relationship of Mouse with Easy and the relationship of Pinchas with the Israelites, and the rest of us — to Pinchas.

Mouse and Pinchas both take actions that are outside the law. Both do things that make others, including Easy, the Israelites and us, uncomfortable. However, when Pinchas and Mouse act, we are likely torn between horror, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, cheering for some semblance of justice in ugly circumstances: Pinchas’ killin of two people — whom the text tells us are guilty — was meant to stop further blood-shed. In one midrash (Sanhedrin 44a) Pinchas cries out to God, “Because of these, shall 24,000 die?”

The Torah reading cycle tries, it seems, to put Pinchas’ violence (at the close of the portion Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9) at a distance. But the scribal strangeness of the opening of Pinchas seems to question such distance is possible. As noted above, Mosley could have had Easy insist on a leaving Mouse at some “safe” distance; instead, he has Easy realize that is not a real possibility.

A member of Temple Micah pointed out, following my dvar Torah, that many authors of detective fiction consider the “scary friend” and the “good guy” to be two aspects of their own personalities. She added that, in Jewish tradition, the “yetzer ha-tov” (impulse to good) and yezter ha-ra (impulse to evil) are both considered essential parts of human life.

In this spirit, Mosley gives us ways to look at this split: On the one hand, we have Easy, struggling to be moral in very difficult circumstances, coupled with Mouse, going through life with his own rules and set of unhinged impulses; Socrates Fortlaw is a different model of integrating human impulses.

In a sense, the Pinchas story split offers us both these models: first, the divided version, at the close of Balak, with the shocking, crisis-driven behavior showing up in an isolated character; then, the integrated version, in the opening of Pinchas, with the shocking, crisis-driven behavior becoming an acknowledged part of life going forward.

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