"Walkin' the Dog" by Walter Mosley

The stories in this new collection flirt dangerously with agitprop but wind up delivering a cumulative shock.

Published October 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Walter Mosley hasn't exactly set himself an easy task. Having apparently charged his work with bearing Ralph Ellison's unbearable legacy, he diagnoses American racial pathologies so deep-rooted as to seem intractable, then tramples the boundaries of genre in search of solutions. Whether his characters are black or white, whether they turn up in mystery, science fiction or mainstream fiction, they find themselves burdened by three centuries of attraction, oppression and unpredictable kindnesses whose ultimate lesson may simply be that no one among us can survive alone.

But these pathologies have proved themselves famously resistant to diagnosis, and of late Mosley's work has shown signs of frustration. Last year's "Blue Light" tossed altogether too many racial metaphors in with muzzy hippie platitudes to produce an unappetizingly fantastic resolution. And until he gathers sufficient momentum two-thirds of the way into his new collection of linked stories, "Walkin' the Dog," Mosley seems to have given up literary indirection for agitprop's simpler consolations.

At times his deliberately coarse prose flirts with pulp ("You're the only full grown man in the whole store. Outside of you, it's just women, kids, and kiss asses"). Often it indulges in the post-Hemingway variety of blank macho posturing that Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane and Richard Russo have kneaded to death ("Sometimes it's only a scared man can do what's right"). And sometimes Mosley's billboard pronouncements slap into you with a clumsiness that can't be intentional ("The ex-con could have been a dark statue placed in the center of that small room by some sculptor who knew that the truth could only be told in secret").

Yet in the end those flaws feel more like distractions. These stories, which center on ex-con Socrates Fortlow (first introduced in the 1997 "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned"), sneak into your heart and deliver a cumulative shock of complicity. Cocooned inside his jail-hardened muscles and his remorse, Socrates adopts minimalism as a code of conduct, accepting lovelessness and solitude as his lot. His deprivation is so powerfully inhabited, so elemental (four years out of the joint, he's still saving for his own phone), that it coats even his smallest aspirations with doubt and temporariness. Yet in these pages he also grows, glimpsing the first new inklings of the hope he'd extinguished during his 27 years in prison, getting a promotion, fighting a corporation that tries to steal his squat, even widening the circle of "students" he schools in the world's home truths: "You got to answer for what you did wrong. That's what I know."

By the time we reach the powerful concluding story, "Rogue," in which Socrates discovers a previously unknown capacity for nonviolent persuasion -- toting a billboard listing the crimes of a rogue cop, he becomes an embodiment of the conscience of the Los Angeles poor (and sets off a riot) -- Mosley's rough-cut sentences and indefinite endings coalesce. At last we recognize that we are (and have all along been) moving through the terrain of folk art: stories whispered down through the days as sustenance against bad times, a poetry of truth all the sturdier for its hard-won wisdom.

"I been lookin' to be free for my whole life," Socrates tells Darryl, the young knucklehead he first set straight in "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned." "An' when I get it it's just like a pocket fulla change ... That change is just jinglin' in my pockets but there ain't nuthin' I got to buy ... I could just pass it on to somebody else now ... somebody like you." In prose that weds slave narrative to gangsta rap, the accents of plantation runaways to those of buppie computer salesmen, Mosley finds his way to a vividly modern preacher's voice capable of telling us exactly what we need to know about the world today.

By Jesse Berrett

Jesse Berrett is a historian and critic in San Francisco.

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