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Black and Blue

ALWAYS OUTNUMBERED, ALWAYS OUTGUNNED. By Walter Mosley . W.W. Norton: 208 pp., $23

November 09, 1997|THOMAS CURWEN | Thomas Curwen is the deputy editor of Book Review

Fats Waller had just gotten out of jail in 1929 for alimony arrears when he penned the haunting melody to "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue," and Louis Armstrong sang his version of the song so painfully that Ralph Ellison heard it in 1947 when he wrote "Invisible Man." Fifty years later, invisibility and the blues still ravage and bless the African American landscape: no less in Los Angeles, no less in Walter Mosley's unflinching portraits of this city.

His latest, "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned," leaves behind Easy Rawlins and the Watts of the late '40s, '50s and '60s to focus instead on the city today, a place where police helicopters prowl the night skies, where gunfire is never distant and where, most conspicuously, the black community is woefully divided among itself. While Mosley skips the bounds of mystery writing this time around, he proves himself equally adept searching for truth in everyday life, a place where the simplest questions (What do I do when I've lost my job? What happens when my husband doesn't come home at night? How do I stand up to the gangsters down the street?) are the most difficult to answer.

This collection of 14 short stories looks at the life of Socrates Fortlow, 58 years old and eight years out of Indiana State Penitentiary. Hard time taught Fortlow nothing more than his own tolerance and capacity for breaking the law. "I either committed a crime or had a crime done to me every day I was in jail. Once you go to jail you belong there," he says, still haunted by the cruelties he witnessed.

His own was not a pretty business, a rape and double homicide back in 1961, but Fortlow played by the rules and turned himself in. Twenty-seven years later, having "discharged his debt to society," he's on the streets of Los Angeles, lured to a city where the cops won't know him and where "everybody [is] in too much of a hurry to remember faces, places, times, and events." Not a day passes, though, that he doesn't think of the couple he slaughtered. They were dead, and he was still asking himself why.

Fortlow's rehab begins on the streets of Los Angeles. Anonymity, loneliness and isolation (read invisibility) at first suit him; he's a bum ("what people call a street person in the 1990s"), ashamed of himself as he pushes shopping carts through the streets of South-Central collecting bottles and cans, waiting for hours in line at the redemption center and fighting the kids who would steal his pocket change. He believes it's all he deserves, this struggle to keep alive, bedding down each night in a drafty tear-down whose owner is dead and the city behind on collecting back taxes. Hunger and exhaustion are all he counts on until one day he nabs a 12-year-old kid skulking in the alley out back with a neighbor's dead rooster in a cardboard box.

When he was that age, Fortlow never was sure what was right. "You know--absolutely sure," he admits, and today the line between right and wrong, to Mosley's credit, is still blurred. Darryl, the 12-year-old, has just killed someone. Petis, the sorry-ass doper in another story, finds it easier to get money by sticking a knife into somebody than getting a job, and in another, Ralphie, who's married and with kids, has no problem taking in plain view whatever favors Linda's offering down the street.

Though Fortlow's response to the life in the 'hood borders at times on being polemic and preachy ("What the biggest problem a black man have?" he asks. "Bein' a man, that's what. Standin' up an' sayin' what it is we want an' what it is we ain't gonna take." And later, when Darryl confronts and fights some gangbangers in the neighborhood park, Fortlow is proud: "You stood up for yourself. . . . That's all a black man could do. You always outnumbered, you always outgunned."), Mosley wisely shoulders him with the burden of his own guilt, the painful memories of his crime and his deep need to find purpose, meaning and possibly even redemption. Later in the collection, which seems more of a novel as Mosley charts the development of this astonishing character, Fortlow becomes clearer in his vision of himself (he even gets a job at a supermarket, never mind it's three bus transfers away), his community and how, among other things, he can help Darryl.

In the story "Marvane Street," Fortlow takes Darryl to a run-down neighborhood where they watch the comings and goings at a crack house, walk by the offices of a quasi-political militant group, the Young Africans, and then, three doors down and across the street, watch the small dark house where the undercover police--black cops no less--more interested in subversion than in the rot of drugs, keep up their surveillance. The lesson is not wasted on Darryl: The black community is feeding upon itself and in the process destroying its own vitality.

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