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Walter Mosley, The Tempest Tales

I just gobbled up another Walter Mosley audiobook, The Tempest Tales. This book is a tightly woven collection of short stories (not quite a novel, but not really independent stories either).


Tempest Landry is a young black man living in Harlem who is killed by the police because he is mistaken for another man. He goes to be judged by St. Peter, who assigns him to hell. But he disagrees with Peter’s judgement of his life. So he’s reincarnated back on Earth in a different body, and an angel is incarnated along with him to try to convince him that he is a sinner who is unworthy of heaven.

Stories like this are pretty common, and Mosley’s has a few things in common with the others. One difference, of course, is that he sets the novel in Harlem with a black male protagonist. The angel ("Mr. Angel") who comes along with Tempest is incarnated looking like a black man, but he has no experience of racism (or anything else human for that matter). So there are some great conversations between them that allow Mosley to explain the world as it looks to his protagonist.

Most of the tightly connected stories involve arguments between Tempest and Mr. Angel about the nature of sin. There’s also a simple plot in which Tempest and Mr Angel fall in love with the same woman, and at one point Satan (in his Rolling Stones “man of wealth and taste” persona) gets involved.

On the surface the conversations seem to be about religion, and you’ll probably get more out of the book if you are glancingly familiar with Christian religious tropes such as St Peter, Heaven, Hell, judgement, Lucifer, and so on. (However, for reasons that are unclear to me, although I'm quite sure it's deliberate, Mosley never mentions Jesus.) But I don’t think the book or the conversations are really about religion when you get right down to it. Religion, and the bureaucratic, rule-bound heaven that Mosley makes up, is standing in for the system that glorifies government and corporations at the expense of people, that oppresses poor people and people of color, and that tries to brainwash people into believing that they have to mindlessly follow rules that don’t make sense in the real world.

I’m afraid I’m making the book sound really dour and boring. There really are a lot of conversations about ethics and they get a little repetitive toward the end, but the book is playful and moving with lots of really funny moments.

The audiobook is produced by Griot Audio, a division of Recorded Books that specializes in books by African-American writers, narrated by African-American performers. This book is really well narrated by Ty Jones. As a white person, I don’t know much about African-American speech patterns, and I don’t get as much out of reading books that rely on those speech patterns as some people might, because I can’t reproduce them accurately in my head. So it helps my appreciation a lot to listen rather than read.

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