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The Last Word: Reckoning with Mosley's Socrates Fortlow

Mosley's two books look for light from under the rubble of a life

Posted: Thursday, January 30, 2003

The Last Word by Fern Chandonnet. He can be reached at fchandonnet@juneauempire.com.

Walter Mosley is best known for his Easy Rawlins detective stories - a category I think of as "in-flight" reading: fluff you can focus on even when you're hungry and your ears hurt. But though Mosley's detective plots are no more demanding or interesting than others in that overpopulated genre (in fact, Mosley's are for the most part derivative), his characters do register in the mind and heart.

There's Easy himself, a decorated World War II veteran who finds he's still under fire, now from the brutal racism of 1950s America; Easy's sidekick, Mouse, a diminutive whirlwind who might be dismissed for the psychopathic killer he is if he weren't so damned cute; and a panoply of actors that animate the mean scene of Los Angeles' black culture, each of them as captivating as the next.

Still, they are fiction - the mechanisms of entertainments - and much of their truth recedes with the pages.

Which brings us to another of Mosley's inventions, Socrates Fortlow.

Now, every lightweight wants to be a heavyweight: Comics want to be taken seriously; dumb people want to be thought at least decisive, if not actually intelligent; limericists want to be poet laureates. The quest is a silly one, usually. We are merely what we are.

But in two books - "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned" and "Walkin' the Dog" - Mosley leaves the confines of detective fiction to explore more serious stuff. The books feature Socrates Fortlow, a character who succeeds in exiting the page and establishing residence in the mind the way Sammy Glick and Tom Joad have. Or Stephen Dedalus, Emma Bovary, Humbert Humbert, Anna Karenina and Hamlet.

The list is not endless.

The two books comprise a string of scenes out of Fortlow's life.

In the opening pages of "Always Outgunned," a 60-ish Fortlow is roused out of his two-room slum shack (too wretched a place for the owner even to collect rent on) by a boy who has just cut the throat of Fortlow's aging rooster.

Fortlow grabs the boy. He is a huge man, with strength that defies his age and which radiates preternaturally out of, equally, the will to violence and the commission in his youth of a vile double-murder.

Lest you think this a routine meeting of man and innocence, know that there is a certain necrosis eating at the edge of the boy's soul, too - and that isn't because he killed a chicken.

For his crime, Fortlow has served 27 years in a penitentiary and has killed there, necessarily. But nothing dogs him like the vision of that double-killing - at once scarifying him with an indelible identity and tempting him occasionally to bow to the familiar impulse, now an old friend. He is always close to killing.

The temptation is to dismiss the pronouncements and prophecies of a monster, of course. Easier to gather our snippets of wisdom from such as, say, Portnoy, as he grapples with himself; or from the offgassing of writers' workshops, whose heroines' lives are in crisis because of a disappointing hotel room on that summer trip to France; or from the maunderings of the ennui-ridden banker and his wife whose child is terminally ill.

Fortlow is dangerous. His community and friends are dangerous. His very pronouncements are dangerous: that America barely exists; that life - and not only his - has no room for love; that you may be forgiven, but that you can never forgive yourself.

Through both books, Mosley pulls the reader into a society - through that first layer of burnt-out-and-boarded-up - and far into rooms with real, if sparse, furniture; into people occupied with subsistence gathering and hard jobs; and even to a realization some white readers may find alarming: that white people are not central to black people's lives.

The first meeting of Socrates and the boy, Darryl, turns improbably into a lesson taught and learned, and into Fortlow's aperu - borne of the tiniest glimpse of the child's humanity - that that rock-hard prison survival instinct is worth nothing when there are souls about.

Fortlow assumes the homeless boy's guardianship, he adopts a crippled dog, he helps rid the neighborhood of a killer druggie - some of it because he needs to make up for that deed, that thing. And he preaches some, though not in the friendliest way.

In one episode, in the most real and aromatic diner I think you'll ever read about, he confronts a young man full of himself and flashing a fan of twenties. The man buys Fortlow a meal and allows as he is a quite successful thief. Fortlow sermonizes. He points out the thief's deficiencies. The ensuing tension between the two is very much of the prison yard; The affront is likely to be met with a response that is all out of proportion to the degree of insult.

Fortlow does that here and there in both of Mosley's books, preach, though his authority comes from no scripture, or Sunday-morning conviction, or breviary collection of sins in their ascending order of severity.

He kills and he despairs. Thus he knows all the sins.

Mouse, from his beginnings in Mosley's books to his comeuppance, rummages around within his limited space. But he doesn't change much. If there's a few bucks in it, and if he can help his friend Easy, and if he has a chance to lay his big .40-caliber pistol upside the head of somebody he doesn't like, he'll do it. Mouse is what the adolescent in mankind wants.

Socrates, even with the appalling weight he carries, senses light ahead and strives and actually moves toward something better than he is - though he doesn't for an instant deserve it. Socrates is what the adolescent in mankind is.



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