Friday, October 26, 2012

The Big Questions: Walter Mosley’s The Right Mistake

Last week on Metro Morning, CBC Radio’s Toronto morning show, host Matt Galloway talked about a place he likes to go to get his hair cut. If memory serves, he said it is called Not Just A Haircut. What he said he liked to do was go in for a haircut, and then just hang out for two hours after and participate in the wide-ranging conversations that spring up. Sometimes, he said, it is simple things like the news of the day, or recent sporting events, but other times it takes on a more philosophical bent. His comments got me thinking about a book I read recently by Walter Mosley, a favourite writer of mine who’s best known for his Easy Rawlins series of character-driven mystery novels, including Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) which was made into a criminally underrated Denzel Washington film expertly directed by Carl Franklin in 1995. The novel, The Right Mistake (2008), is the third in a series of novels (though the first two – Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1997) and Walkin’ the Dog (1999) – were actually interlinked short stories rather than novels, per se) featuring ex-con Socrates Fortlow. (Laurence Fishburne played Fortlow in a 1998 HBO TV-movie of Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned.) Fortlow lives in the tough region of Los Angeles called Watts. He  is a reforming violent man (‘reforming’, since, like an alcoholic, you are never completely ‘cured’ of violence) who spent almost half his life in prison for crimes he freely admitted he committed, including rape and murder. Violence is never far from his mind, but nor is redemption, forgiveness and reform, and not necessarily just for him.

To that end, he acquires a tin-clad building that looks like, and is quickly dubbed, The Big Nickel. What he establishes at The Big Nickel is something he calls The Thursday Night Thinker’s Meeting. The Thinkers are a diverse group of people including gang-bangers, artists, chefs, professionals, local business people, young men who are in danger of heading down the wrong road, etc. They come from innumerable ethnic groups (both male and female), representing a multitude of opinions, and life experiences. Fortlow may be named Socrates, therefore the logic of him inaugurating this club in order to discuss and understand what they face in the world, but he is more a figurehead and facilitator. He established this group so that they could talk in an attempt to reach, perhaps, some sort of way to move beyond violence, misunderstanding, guilt and suspicion. He’s not delusional; he knows that his little group of 20 people will not change the world, but it is a place to start. He also uses The Big Nickel to hold meetings between rival gangs to see if they can find some common ground.

Laurence Fishburne as Socrates Fortlow
Alas, all is not sweetness and light. Within the group, vicious arguments erupt that endanger the survival of Fortlow’s dream. Externally, the police have taken notice, especially when Fortlow hosts the rival gangs. Infiltrators are sent; suspicion by the authorities grows. And yet, within this increasingly volatile world, Fortlow finds himself falling in love with a forceful, rough-hewn and opinionated young woman, Luna Barnet, who has joined the group. It is in these sequences –this young woman (she’s young enough to be his daughter) gradually peels away his layers of distrust, anger, fear and emotional isolation to pull Fortlow out of himself – that is at the core of this fine, if odd novel.

It’s an odd novel because realistically this just shouldn’t work. Large sections are just the people talking and debating. Side events occur (including a road trip to San Francisco that seems to be here only to test Fortlow’s fidelity to Luna), but the focus of the book is the talk. It’s interesting talk, but I’m not sure it’s a novel. And yet, I found myself thinking on more than one occasion as I read, “I wish I could join in.” The things talked about (the justification of violence; the issues of racism within all groups toward each other; can food, wine, music and words be a recipe for calm and understanding; can we ever forgive ourselves for the terrible things we (think) we’ve done in our past) are some of the big questions of the day that continually plague us.

Walter Mosley
On some levels, I think Mosley himself knew what he was writing was a philosophical treatise and not a novel (the book’s subtitle is The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow), so the book stumbles near the end when, seemingly out of the blue (there’s barely a set up for this in the chapters prior to it), Socrates is arrested for the murder of an undercover cop. The evidence swings on the notion that the cop drew down on Fortlow before Fortlow did anything. The evidence on both sides is circumstantial, so for me the outcome of this contrived trial just did not ring true to what would happen in real life. I got the feeling with this finale that Mosley had ideas he wanted to put forth, and decided to put it into the mouths of fictional characters, and yet by the time he got to the end he had no way of finishing it, so the end feels shoehorned.

For many years, I’ve considered the idea of establishing a salon, a place where people could come and talk, perform music, read their works, or just hang out. I’ve never been able to because where I’ve lived over the years has never been conducive to the idea. But there is a very long tradition of the salon, going back to the Ancient Greek times when the Athenians hosted symposia, to the café culture that thrived in Paris between the two world wars. It’s a deeply appealing idea: people, not necessarily like-minded, who are willing to get together to share ideas, points of view, and creative impulses. Walter Mosley’s The Right Mistake is the literary equivalent of these discussions and it is a conversation well worth joining.  

 David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel, The Storm and Its Eye.