by Beth DurisOctober, 1999
Readers will remember Socrates Fortlow, the hero of Walter Mosley's riveting new book Walkin' the Dog, from the author's acclaimed short story collection Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. Although he has been out of prison for nine years at the start of Mosley's new book, the ex-convict-murderer turned boxboy is still a man dominated by his violent past. Socrates lives on the margins of society, in two abandoned rooms in a Watts alley. He cooks on a butane stove and wears leather sandals rescued out of a trash can. He is constantly aware of his own capacity for anger and violence, unable to shake the fists out of his hands. Yet, like the philosopher whose name he shares, Socrates is a wise and thoughtful man, and he has made many friends since leaving prison. He has become a surrogate father to a young boy named Darryl, helping to keep him in school and out of trouble. His boss at the Bounty Supermarket wants to promote him to produce manager. He has a girlfriend and even a pet, a friendly, two-legged dog named Killer. Slowly but surely, Socrates is working his way toward a more mainstream life.
In the process, however, he must confront both his own beliefs about himself and society's expectations of him. His struggles provide a forum for Mosley to explore complex racial issues and examine the effects of prejudice and inequality in our society. Over the course of the book, which falls somewhere between a novel and a collection of thematically connected short stories, Socrates comes to define himself and to win a figurative freedom that matches his literal one. It's not what would you do for men like us. It's what will you do, Socrates tells a fellow ex-convict. We got to see past being guilty what's done is done. You still responsible, you cain't never make it up, but you got to try. Through realistic dialogue and excellent use of detail, Mosley animates the burly ex-con, as well as fascinating supporting characters like Lavant Hall, a soprano-voiced rebel with a pencil-thin mustache and a fondness for perfume. Readers will leave this provocative book hoping that Socrates Fortlow is still out there somewhere, teaching us all what it means to be a free and responsible man.