When Walter Mosley introduced Socrates Fortlow in his 1997 collection "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned," he offered Los Angeles one of its most original voices. Pushing a shopping cart through the alleys of South-Central, collecting bottles and cans and trying to keep himself from landing back in prison, Socrates helped us see the problems and temptations for those living on the street. With nearly 70,000 people in the county existing in such circumstances, his journey was amazing and instructive.
Two years later, Mosley published another volume of Fortlow stories, "Walkin' the Dog," and the going hadn't gotten any easier for the ex-con. "I'm scared' a livin' in my own skin, I'm scared of all the evil and sad I know," Socrates said, still haunted by the rape and double murder that had landed him in the penitentiary for 27 years. "I mean just 'cause they let you outta prison that don't mean you're free." Still, no matter how strong the pull of the world, the character's moral compass never betrayed him.
Now, after a nine-year silence, Socrates is back in a novel, "The Right Mistake." While his circumstances have improved, he feels no freer than before. Playing dominoes and drinking red wine with his friends have worn thin; there's got to be more for himself -- and more for his community. "The whole damn world is messed up," he says. "An' all we do every day is shut our eyes hopin' that it'll get bettah while we ain't looking."
In a deal that only a man with fists known as rock-breakers can make, Socrates arranges a sweetheart lease on a two-story house in Watts covered in tin siding; it becomes known as the Big Nickel. Here, he sets up a weekly meeting for neighbors and acquaintances to break bread, drink and talk. There's a gambler, a lawyer, a social worker, a soup kitchen manager, a soul singer, a gangbanger, a Mexican American carpenter, a Chinese American martial-arts teacher and a Jewish ragman -- people who until now have been invisible to one another.Socrates hopes to elevate their consideration of the problems they see daily but don't know how to fix. "[I]f I ask you how can we save some child bound for prison or the graveyard you just sit there like some voodoo witch done sewed your lips shut," he says at the first gathering.
But in Mosley's hands, talk is dangerous. The meetings soon become open debates. The gangster is forced to defend himself for gunning down young men in the community. An undercover policeman explains why he's had to commit crimes in the name of the law, and the blacks in the room take on the meaning of race in America today.
There are no answers, of course, just a catharsis of sorts and a possible easing of the rationalizations -- the so-called right mistakes (the Orwellian phrase used to describe the invasion of Iraq) -- that cloud our daily vision. In time, the Big Nickel becomes a popular gathering place, the weekly meetings too crowded to accommodate everyone, and Socrates becomes a story for the local media. Naturally, this draws the suspicions of the LAPD.
As a writer ever intent upon pushing the boundaries of his prose, Mosley knows that the written word can't afford to live in a vacuum. There's too much at stake today not to push people out of complacency. No wonder he dedicates this novel to Harry Belafonte's community organization, the Gathering for Justice. No wonder he started his own organization, Democracy Initiative.
But it's no wonder also that the arguments in "The Right Mistake" seem at times less rooted in the fictional world of the book than in the real world beyond its covers. Sure, Socrates is the same hardened soul striving for redemption as he avenges the shooting of a friend, draws close to his girlfriend, tracks down a police informant and recalls his years in prison. More often than not, the fictive dream here reads like a social tract. Although Mosley clearly means to link Socrates' mission at the Big Nickel with the con's need for atonement, the themes that motivate "The Right Mistake" often outpace his characters' lives.
There has long been a cry in American fiction for the return of the social novel. That's what Mosley's after here, yet the subtle but critical balance between drama and ideas seems slightly off. This isn't to say the weekly discussions at the Big Nickel don't deserve a fulsome debate. But the story works best when Mosley gets his characters out on the street and paints his pictures of life in Watts from the vantage of the small bootleg diners, the drafty tear-downs and the dingbat apartments.
In "The Right Mistake," however, the urgency of these settings fades inside the Big Nickel, especially after Socrates acquires celebrity status. In the end, not even the murder of a cop -- and a trial that puts Socrates on the stand -- are enough to drive home Mosley's central point: that the principles of democracy are threatened most by those who are afraid to practice them.