Someone's been tailing Walter Mosley.
The worst of it, he admits, palms flat against the table linen, in full confessional mode, is that who has--and maybe more precisely what has--been persistently shadowing him began first as a figment of his own imagination.
"It's like this," the author begins, leaning forward into the anecdote, his whisper skimming just above the whirring buzz of luncheon-rush cell phones at Beverly Hills' Belvedere. "I was speaking at a library recently. And in the introduction the woman said, 'Walter Mosley is a mystery writer. He's written very many wonderful mysteries, and he's just come out with a new book, 'Walkin' the Dog,' starring Socrates Fortlow.' I corrected her. I said I've written mysteries, but I've written more books that aren't mysteries. My books don't 'star' people. I have real characters, with real character development--hopefully. And y'know, if there were any genre that I was accused of being in," says Mosley, "it should be the genre of black male heroes."
Over the last decade, the wildly prolific Mosley, 47--with 10 books in as many years--has convened a powerful ensemble of such heroes, a hardy chorus of voices pushing off from the sidelines to solo. There is Socrates, the mediating force of the new collection of stories "Walkin' the Dog" (Little, Brown), a sequel to 1997's "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned" (W.W. Norton). There is Soupspoon Wise, the pain-permeated blues man, of "RL's Dream" (Norton, 1995). And there is Chance, a biracial man looking for the meaning of his existence in the world, from 1998's "Blue Light" (Norton). It is a foray into speculative fiction: "If we as black people can't have a past," suggests Mosley, a native Angeleno who now makes his home in New York, "we can at least have a future."
But it's Easy Rawlins, the reluctant man for hire, the neighborhood "fix-it man" of L.A.'s boom years of the '40s through '60s, who helps his friends and new acquaintances close the gaps and open the doors that better their lives. It is Easy who casts the most imposing, and thus eclipsing, shadow.
Fascination With Life's Daily Challenges
Mosley, by all means, doesn't minimize the entree that Easy Rawlins has afforded him in his writing career. (Even still, he continues to hear the "Bill Clinton's favorite writer . . ." endorsement as some sort of seal of approval.) But there are other things to talk about. He doesn't want to be pressed into the corner by his character's growing presence and what it portends, either. To his mind, people sometimes miss the larger intent of his stories--that they are most certainly wrapped around a conceit, a convention, but it doesn't mean that that is all they are.
"I want you to be able to read and get something out of it. If you have a post-doctorate degree or an eighth-grade education. I'm not writing for one and not the other, especially with what I'm writing about--that would be ridiculous. . . . It's not exclusive. I think that my heroes could be anybody's heroes. They're all different kinds of people."
Whether by coincidence or by design, most of Mosley's novels concern themselves with this life quandary: How people live their lives in the space between--be they the narrow crawl spaces of one's own consciousness or the margins that society forces them into. Socrates Fortlow, a 60ish ex-con, tries to piece together a life after prison. Daily, he must confront and mitigate his long-steeped anger. Not the hair-trigger anger at his fingertips, but the fury at its root.
Starting at subzero, Socrates wanders the urban landscape, collecting castoffs and throwaways--bottles, dogs, children--piecing together a life. And, much like transient/artist Simon Rodia, whose refuse-studded towers pointedly mark the landscape of Watts (Socrates' home), the act of reclaiming objects and lives is Socrates' own tribute to determination--a personal commitment to build something grand and new.
"When [Socrates] got to his place, he had the feeling of coming home," writes Mosley in an early chapter of "Walkin' the Dog." "Home to his illegal gap. Home to a place that had no street address. . . . It was a hard place. . . . It had never been hearth or asylum, but now it was both of these things. For the first time he was thankful for what little he had. He was safe at least for one night more."
Socrates tentatively approaches his post-prison life in easier-to-digest 24-hour portions. Sunrises and sunsets.
"When I wrote the book, I had a little sentence in the front that I didn't publish. I kept it for myself," Mosley says, settling into his plate of grilled shrimp. "Twelve stories straining to be a novel, in a life that can only be lived day to day."