Mosley mixes luck, love and intrigue on two boys' road to self-discovery

Review Novel


Fortunate Son: A Novel

Walter Mosley

Little, Brown & Co. / 320 pages / $23.95

Branwyn Beerman smiles at Thomas, her 6-year-old son, who remains perfectly still because he doesn't want to scare her away. "What have they done to you, baby?" she asks.

Is Thomas dreaming? Is he having an out-of-body experience? Is his mother a ghost watching over him "through rain and shine," as she promised just before her untimely death several weeks earlier?

Yes to all three. Everything's possible in Walter Mosley's most recent novel, Fortunate Son, where love transcends all boundaries, even those separating the living from the dead.

Known mostly for his award-winning Easy Rawlins mystery series, Mosley is a prolific African-American writer who has ventured before into other genres. (Baltimoreans will most likely remember Mosley giving his 1997 Rawlins mystery, Gone Fishin, to the local Black Classic Press to help promote minority publishing.) But when Mosley leaves the territory of the mystery novel, he does so with mixed success.

A coming-of-age story, Fortunate Son contains an unwieldy blend of ghosts, auras, sex, violence, murder, mayhem and love. Set in a moneyed Los Angeles suburb as well as in one of its gritty urban ghettoes, the novel has two heroes. Thomas Beerman and Eric Nolan - two boys, one black and one white - come together after Eric's mother dies in childbirth. One of the boys, as the title suggests, is fortunate, the other probably not.

At first, Eric appears to be the fortunate one. Coming from a wealthy, white family, he's smart, strong, outgoing and "blond haired, blue eyed" handsome. Once, there's an accident in which a playmate suffers third-degree burns, but Eric, with his typical good luck, is spared.

True, Eric has lost his mother, but his father, Dr. Nolan, brings into his home Branwyn and Thomas. A poor, black woman, whom he meets at the hospital where she is keeping vigil over her infant son, Thomas, Branwyn becomes Eric's surrogate mother, and Thomas his "brother."

Born poor and black, with damaged lungs, Thomas doesn't seem to be fortunate. He's weak, sickly and frequently hospitalized with respiratory infections. He's also shy, but like his mother he's intuitive and able to see into peoples' motives - including his own.

When Branwyn dies from a flu-like illness, 6-year-old Thomas leaves the Nolan family to live with his abusive birth father, who doesn't want him influenced by white people. Despite his tender age, Thomas is soon involved in drug dealing. He's beaten, shot, jailed and forced to live on the street, but all is not lost.

Separated for 10 years, the boys hope to meet, but to no avail. Meanwhile, they lead frenetic lives in a plot that touches on subjects ranging from police brutality, to the inhumane treatment of the Vietnamese people during the war, to the meaning of maternal and fraternal love.

Although Fortunate Son isn't designated a parable, it should be. Eric and Thomas are prodigal sons and must navigate foreign territory before coming back home together. Their story has two morals: one concerns the ties that bind mothers to sons and brothers to brothers; the other concerns money. In this tale, wealth absolutely does not buy happiness, which brings readers back to the question: Who is the fortunate son? Although well-to-do, Eric is not fortunate because he needs other people - primarily Thomas - to give him a sense of self.

Early on, Thomas is nicknamed "Lucky," and the name fits. It's not a nod toward the racial injustices that beset him. Nor is it idle wordplay. Thomas is fortunate because he has everything he needs. Ultimately, his intuitive sensibility, in a surprise ending, is pitted against a villain out to destroy Eric's good reputation and fortune, as well as his own. Not to worry; if Thomas isn't up to the job, he can always count on his mother, someone who (as Mosley suggests perhaps a little too sweetly) will always watch over him.

Diane Scharper, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, teaches English at Towson University.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.