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The Continuing Adventures of Socrates Fortlow
Walter Mosley may be best known for his popular Easy Rawlins novels (Black Betty, Devil in a Blue Dress, etc.), but he writes with equal facility in a wide variety of narrative modes. In the past few years, he has written science fiction (Blue Light), published a biographical novel about blues musician Robert Johnson (RL's Dream), and produced a collection of linked stories called Walkin' the Dog, the second volume in an ongoing series featuring Socrates Fortlow, one of Mosley's most memorable creations.
Socrates, who made his first appearance in 1997's Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, is a black, 60-year-old ex-convict whose life has been governed by a vast, sometimes uncontrollable rage. As a young man, he murdered two people in a fit of blind fury and spent the next 27 years in a maximum-security prison in Indiana. Following his parole, he moved west, eventually settling for a marginal, almost subterranean existence in south central Los Angeles. As the new book opens, he is living in a two-room shack hidden between a pair of abandoned buildings and working as a box boy for a local supermarket. His notoriety, however, has followed him. Every time a violent crime occurs in his neighborhood, Socrates finds himself the first — and sometimes the only — suspect.
Caught between the grim, external realities of urban life and his own innate capacity for violence,Socratesstruggles constantly to find the proper path, to build a sane, acceptable life for himself in a precarious universe. In Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, he steps outside the confines of his self-imposed solitude to save the life of a teenaged boy named Darryl. In Walkin' the Dog, he continues to pursue the hazardous process of reconnecting with the world. As part of this process, he adopts a pet (a two-legged dog named Killer), acquires a girlfriend, and proceeds to assume a wider range of personal and professional responsibilities.
Walkin' the Dog consists of 12 interconnected narratives that cumulatively reflect the moral and material progress of Socrates's post-prison life. In "Promise," Socrates belatedly keeps a deathbed promise to a former cellmate, planting a tree and making love to a pretty woman, all in memory of his long-dead friend. In "Blue Lightning" and "That Smell," he finds himself mysteriously moved by the music — and by the desperate personal circumstances — of a down-and-out blues musician. In "The Mugger," Socrates is forced, against his deepest wishes, to kill once again, this time in self-defense. In "Mookie Kid," a conversation with a former fellow inmate reawakens Socrates's sense of the underlying sadness of existence.
As the stories proceed, Socrates gradually admits a number of changes into his spartan, self-contained life. He buys a phone. He reluctantly accepts a well-deserved promotion at the Bounty Supermarket. He joins a discussion group that meets weekly at a local funeral home. Ultimately, he yields to circumstances and moves to a larger home, an attractive house with a lawn, a garden, and a living room "big enough to contain three single cells." In the climactic episode, "Rogue," he initiates a private war against a corrupt, violent policeman, an act that alters everything for Socrates, leaving him, by the final pages, poised on the edge of a new and unpredictable future.
During the course of his adventures, Socrates continually evaluates both the world around him and his varied, sometimes violent responses to that world. Throughout this book, he forces himself to ask the difficult but necessary questions: questions about history and race, about moral imperatives and individual responsibility, about the nature (and the source) of his own deep-seated anger. Though he would probably never phrase the matter quite this way, Socrates emulates his namesake and becomes a kind of philosopher, constantly addressing the most fundamental of all moral questions: How should a man live?
Mosley's complex, unsentimental portrait of this most unusual hero is moving and believable, and I look forward to subsequent installments. Along with Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, Walkin' the Dog deserves the kind of popularity that the Easy Rawlins novels have so quickly acquired. Like Easy, Socrates Fortlow is a vital, original creation — a genuine work-in-progress — and he provides Mosley with the perfect vehicle for exploring the complications — internal and external — of life on the margins of 20th-century society.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. At the Foot of the Story Tree, his book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, will be published by Subterranean Press in the spring of 2000.