Walter Mosley: death and strange Socratic values

November 02, 1997|By James Asher | James Asher,SUN STAFF

"Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned," by Walter Mosley. Norton. 208 pages. $23.

Violence haunts every corner of Walter Mosley's newest novel. It permeates the characters. It dribbles over scenes. It becomes an ethic unto itself.

In spite of myself, I like "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned." I like it very much and I admire the killer hero, Socrates Fortlow. His solutions, his observations, his friendships have their origins in the primordial ooze. In my weary world, they seem fretfully reasonable. There is little ennobling in them, yet they are everywhere enriching.

Fortlow is an murderer and a rapist. He is jailed for 27 years. And along the way, he kills even more: once it was a bully who abused a fellow inmate. He heard the vertebrae crack. Finally released, Fortlow tries to craft a new life. Armed with a felon's moral compass, he tries to save a youngster from the streets. He tends to a dying friend with a nun's gentleness, ultimately offering him the final release in the form of a handful of potent pain killers. At the book's end, one is uncertain just how Socrates will use the plastic-wrapped pistol bulging in a pocket. But you suspect you know.

Mosley's characters have a simple view of their condition. Socrates plays the role of priest, offering advice on the violence and hopelessness of Los Angeles' Watts. Consider what he tells the youngster: "Tell me how a healthy boy ain't wrong when he kills his black brother who is sick. Boy is dead now. We cain't change that. But you got to figure out where you stand....We all got to be our own judge, li'l brother. Cause when you don't know when you wrong then yo' life ain't worf a damn."

The idea that killings can be "wrong" but understandable and sometimes absolutely necessary recurs often throughout Mosley's novel. And with each telling, this commonplace necessity of the street makes it clear just how distant Socrates is from me. How the domain of Watts and Socrates and Darryl, the kid, and Right Burke, the dying man, are evidence of America's two separate, unequal worlds.

Yet with the trials and traumas, with the aimlessness and violence, there exists within those destined to struggle and then struggle some more a set of standards, a felon's compass. And as they move along, each of them has something important to say to the rest of us: It matters that we avoid wrong and strive for goodness. Without such truths, life's errant pathways surely will swallow us all.

James Asher is city editor of The Sun, and former editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been writing for newspapers for over 25 years.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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