In his absorbing 1998 short story collection Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, Walter Mosley took a break from his best-selling, movie-spawning Easy Rawlins mystery series to introduce Socrates Fortlow. In Socrates, recently paroled after serving 27 years in an Indiana prison for rape and homicide, Mosley sketched a convincing portrait of a parolee trying to make good–a man attempting to adjust to the world outside of prison. Walkin’ the Dog signals the welcome return of Socrates as well as a chance for readers to observe one of the finer neo-noir stylists continuing to explore less conventional terrain.
Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books succeeded for a number of reasons, not the least of which being his compelling black PI, Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins. But, like most writers working in the mystery genre, Mosley’s eye never strayed far from his bread and butter: plot. Here, though, he chooses once again to place Socrates in a series of interconnected short stories with, essentially, no plot. So what has Mosley done without his engine? Well, he’s done something at once predictable and startlingly original: he’s gone high concept (no stretch for a mystery writer) but without the quest. There’s no devil in a blue dress here. More surprisingly, Mosley’s gone high-minded, establishing Socrates Fortlow as the walking embodiment of the Socrates–he of the "method" and Plato’s Dialogues–in modern-day Watts, Los Angeles. Socrates Fortlow, for Mosley, serves something like the same purpose as Socrates served for Plato: that of the mouthpiece of philosophies as well as the vessel through which the arguments surrounding the philosophies are hashed out.
always outnumbered, always outgunned saw the gradual transformation of Socrates from a learner to a teacher. Mosley developed this largely through Socrates’s relationship with Darryl, a teenager from the neighborhood whom Socrates takes under his wing. Darryl is teetering between gang life and school. His mother has given up on him, leaving Socrates in the position of finding the boy a home. Their relationship continues in Walkin’ the Dog, with Socrates continuing to shepherd Darryl through life, "teaching" the ways of the world through his rather blunt renditions of the Socratic method: that is, asking questions until the core contradiction of a deeply held idea is exposed. A typical conversation-ending comment from Socrates to Darryl: "If you ain’t done nuthin’ then why they kick you outta school?"
Socrates’ approach to teaching Darryl stems from necessity; alone in the world (and unaware that he is a symbol) Socrates learned fast. As such, he teaches in much the same manner. The relationship between the two is sharply drawn and compelling, shedding light on the new man Socrates has become–a man with a deep sense of humanity. Mosley also uses the relationship to explore the sort of clear-eyed wisdom Socrates has acquired in his path from convicted murderer and rapist to teacher.
This wisdom is most often expressed through Socrates’ periodic, socially inappropriate, yet politically apt, discourses on the America he sees. For example, when asked by a friend what’s wrong, Mosley’s ordinarily stoic ex-con replies:
Wrong? Lotsa stuff is wrong. All kinds a shit. I seen in the paper last night where the cops beat up a whole truckload of illegal Mexicans again. Right in broad daylight. Right on TV. But nobody cares. They didn’t learn nothin’ from them riots.
Socrates’ outrage is amplified and justified by events in his life: eviction, an on-again, off-again relationship, the ever-present possibility (and reality) of violence, his stumbling onto a political activist cum rave organizer. But while reading, I found myself wondering what, beyond a parolee finding a meaningful and morally sound place in the world, is going on here?
In the later stories of Walkin’ the Dog Mosley provides the answer: much more. Socrates begins participating in regular discussions with a group from the neighborhood. (He does so to fill a void left by another of his forums, a local bookstore, shutting down.) They gather ostensibly to discuss the issues facing their neighborhood but, most significantly, they discuss their racial identities. It is in his presentation of these discussions that Mosley explicitly extends his metaphor to "dialogues" and truly hits his stride. Socrates asks the group:
What I wanna know is if you think that black people have a right to be mad at white folks or are we all just full ’a shit an’ don’t have no excuse for the misery down here an’ everywhere else?
Responses and insights follow with a member of the group later asking Socrates why he felt the need to ask such a question. Socrates’ response:
Because I’m tired ’a bein’ mad, man. Tired. I see all these white people walkin’ round and I’m pissed off just that they’re there. And they don’t care. They ain’t worried. They thinkin’ ’bout what they saw on TV last night. They thinkin’ ’bout some joke they heard. And here I am ’bout to bust a gut.
This is what Mosley’s getting at here: really nothing less than the fundamental questions of being black and living in an inner city today. Socrates, in plain terms, gets to the heart of what he experiences as a black man: namely, a persistent sense of frustration, and an ever-present anger that stems from that frustration. From finding and keeping an apartment, to getting a job, Socrates never quite gets a fair shake. Mosley shows how that burns while skillfully leaving self pity out of the equation.
Many writers seek escape from their "day jobs" in other forms of writing. A few–including Patricia Cornwell–write children’s books, some genre-hop under a pseudonym (example: Joyce Carol Oates writing suspense under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith). But Mosley’s not merely playing against type; both his Fortlow books are strong efforts, powerful in their presentation of a flawed hero finding his place in the harsh world of Watts, and powerful also in their presentation of a hero with no plot to chase after. Both work as literature despite the conceit of "Socrates in Watts," which at times verges on the didactic. (In what is most likely a sly bit of humor, Mosley frequently mentions Socrates’ over-sized–read "heavy"–hands). And though Walkin’ the Dog is rarely as vivid and sharp as always outnumbered, always outgunned, it still finds Mosley in fine form. Put another way, for a mystery writer, Walter Mosley has written two very fine short story collections.