Walter Mosley’s Socrates

The hell with Easy Rawlins. We think Socrates Fortlow, despite his unlikely given name, is Walter Mosley’s best series character. After reading Mosley’s recent The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow we went back and read Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, the 1998 collection of stories that introduced the killing hands of Socrates to Mosley’s readers. Always is no mystery, even though Socrates–as implied by the name–is full of questions, even if it’s only, “What you doin’ there, boy?”  Fortlow has spent 27 years behind bars in Indiana for rape and murder and is now in L.A. seeking something he doesn’t call redemption. He lives with the constant fear of what he is capable of.  While his immediate story is of a black man’s struggle to enter society–even at its lowest level–the more personal story is about how one makes good on past acts of evil. Fortlow’s slow-to-develop solution is a sort of self-inflicted karma. There’s no reversing what he’s done, the dead do not come back to life. Instead, his question is what can be done, what acts,  if only peripherally in the name of the dead, will make good. To begin, Socrates engages an at-risk teen who coldly slashes the throat of a pet rooster (the young man plays a central role in the follow-up book). Somewhere in the middle, he wields a death threat to achieve his end. To close, he faces death; not his own but that of a suffering friend. Murder is redeemed through murder, a finality that isn’t as contradictory as it seems. We often separate Mosley’s “thoughtful” books (The Man In My Basement,  Diabliere ) from his Rawlins and other mysteries. That’s the wrong approach. Mosley books frequently deal with redemtption as a sort of justice. Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow is a great American symbol of how evil, once renounced, can be subdued–by acts– if not fogotten. It’s a lesson, even the best of us, should take to heart.–Cabbage Rabbit

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