Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Walter Mosely: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned

If you've read more than one novel by Walter Mosley, you know that his narrative artistry is not bound to any one genre despite his reputation for crime fiction with his long time series featuring Easy Rawlins and a newer series featuring Leonid McGill. His official Web site is not update, but it will draw your attention to the book The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (2011). Ptolemy Grey is a 91 year old who lives  alone, afraid to leave his apartment, losing his mind from neglect and inactivity. He meets 17 year old Robyn at the funeral of his nephew who was killed in a drive by shooting. Between the care he receives from Robyn, a dangerous experimental drug, and his desire to find out who killed his nephew, Ptolemy Grey rediscovers a purpose to his life--it isn't over yet. Mosley's 91 year old character allows the author to weave threads of African American history into the narrative.  His 2004 novel, The Man in the Basement, features another character who lives in neglect, although it is self imposed. Living in the family house, which he no longer maintains, fired from his job, reading science fiction, and drinking Seagrams, Charles Blakey's disintegrating life takes a turn when a white man, clearly a wealthy white man used to having his own way, shows up asking to rent Blakey's basement. The rent will save the house, but it won't necessarily save Blakey. He becomes wrapped up in his new occupant's expiation or exorcism of guilt, but not necessarily finding his own redemption in the process. Both this novel and the Ptolemy Grey novel have elements of surrealism as well as mystery.

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned was published in 1998. While it has elements of the hard boiled, it is not a novel about crime or a mystery. It is a story about living beyond mere survival. As is to be expected from Mosley, it is a textured and nuanced story of living in an African American community. In these stories, the community is in Los Angeles. In these stories, Mosley features the character Socrates Fortlow, also known as Socco. As a reckless young man, he killed a man and raped and killed a woman for which he spent 27 years in an Indiana prison. Fortlow is 58 years old. Although he looks older than his years, he remains strong with a powerful vein of violence still simmering within him. He takes full responsibility for his crimes and is determined to live his life remembering what he has done. It is too simple to say that he hopes to make up for the wrong he has done with good, but he lives his life consciously, making choices that correct wrongs and make the lives of those important to him better.

The story of his crime, his time in prison, and the trajectory of his life following his release is revealed throughout the stories. Fortlow is always thinking about what it means to be a man, and more particularly what it means to be a black man, the honor of work, the necessity of honoring those you love, respecting yourself so that you can treat others with the respect they deserve. He is a man who is always thinking and considering. In the first story, Fortlow catches a young boy who has killed a neighbor's rooster. Fortlow tells the boy, that he has killed Socrates' friend. He makes the boy pluck the rooster, which Fortlow then cooks along with other dishes to create a small feast that he shares with the boy. Through force of personality and the gift of a full stomach, Fortlow coaxes the boy into telling his history. Over several stories, Fortlow becomes a mentor and protector to the boy. This is just one of the story lines, however.

Socrates doesn't let himself or others off easily. He calls them to account, but not without examining his own motivation for doing so.

Mosley's books are complex and challenging. His characters, always part of a tightly knit community in a carefully constructed and described neighborhood, have pasts through which they are working, presents to survive, and futures that may or may not materialize. Certainly good and compelling reading, Mosley's novels and stories keep you thinking and asking questions. He is a master at his craft.

Mosley has more than 30 works of fiction waiting out there for a lucky new reader to discover--so get to work!

Many thanks to my brother who gave me the two Mosley books that I've read most recently. I can't think of a better gift!

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