Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Socrates Fortlow

By Walter Mosley’s own admission, Socrates Fortlow is a violent man, a solitary man. Picking up the thread of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and jumping coasts from New York to Watts, Socrates is an unlikely, but potent spokesman for the social situation of African Americans in today’s America. At times philosopher, moralist, father, friend, lover, survivor, and political commentator, Socrates is simply one of the most powerful figures in literature I’ve encountered in a long, long time.

We initially catch Socrates, whose mother couldn’t teach him to read, but thought naming him after a “smart” person would influence his future, living a near homeless life as a bottle and can collector in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1998). The trajectory traced in this loosely connected collection of vignettes is continued in Walking the Dog (1999). Socrates befriends a boy involved in a murder and attempts to heal him. He eases a cancerous best friend into death. He teaches countless people the worth of their lives. He gets a job. He gets a better job. He visits the ocean. He adopts a dog. But underneath it all the very earth shifts and heaves. There is no stability in the life of Socrates Fortlow.

Socrates is a violent man, and he wrestles with this violence ever day. It was violence that propelled him to murder two people and rape a woman. It was violence that kept him incarcerated for 28 years in an Indiana penitentiary. It was violence that kept him alive every one of those days. Socrates Fortlow is a study in male violence, and rather than being an outright condemnation of that violence, his tales are explorations, investigations of that violence. Socrates sees his act of murder and rape over and over in his dreams. He sees Watts in flames. He carries this around as he tries to better his life by getting a job at the Bounty Supermarket, by taking the boy Darryl under his wing. But it flares up like an errant spark and engulfs him.

It is my firm conviction that Walter Mosley, most noted perhaps for his Easy Rawlins novels, will go down in what we call history as one of the most influential black writers of the past (and possibly this) century, in a large part for these books. They moved me in a way few books can, and left me begging for a continuation. And even with another Fortlow book, which I am not aware is forthcoming; a continuation is all it will be. Death is the only conclusion to a life, and a life is a collection of moments, a pastiche. The moments that compose these books are among the finest rendered in contemporary fiction. I urge you to enter his world, spend a few hours. What you take away won’t leave you.

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