Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Review: Fortunate Son. Walter Mosley.

Hachette, 2006 ISBN: 0316114715

Michael Sedano

Walter Mosley writes some of literature's best characters in his "colored" series novels featuring Easy Rawlins. Easy, his lethal sidekick Mouse, and a host of others, people almost a dozen novels spanning a period from the end of WWII to the 1965 Watts riots. Ostensibly a detective writer, Mosley spins a crime yarn against the backdrop of Los Angeles black / white race relations, and the neighborhoods of Central and, now and then East Los.

Every now and then, Mosley tosses in something different. Socrates Fortlow finds a warm welcome among some readers. A sci-fi novel here and there mystifies some readers. A new lead character shows up and perhaps dissatisfies long-time “colored” readers. Now Mosley brings forth Thomas Beerman and Eric Nolan in what is likely to be their only novel. This is a novel you do not want to miss.

There’s no crime, per se, in Fortunate Son. Instead, Mosley tracks the lifespan of brothers Thomas and Eric from birth to young adulthood today, paralleling black and white L.A., poverty and privilege, class and color. Which is far too simplistic. As with the boys in this novel—and Richard Montoya’s Water & Power—the surface fails to account for the person behind the persona. As Thomas will say, people look at his brother and they see themselves as in a mirror.

Eric’s mother dies with his birth, leaving his heart surgeon father and Vietnamese nurse, Ahn, to care for the boy’s upbringing. The child is beautiful, blonde, large, and squally. Child of privilege, but off to a rough start. As Eric grows, Ahn begins to fear his unnatural charm, as if everything Eric wins comes at serious, even lethal, cost to loved ones. Thus, when Thomas calls "home" Ahn answers the phone and tells the little boy not to call again.

Thomas’ father leaves Branwyn for his other woman, May, a month after learning of the pregnancy. When Thomas is born, he has a hole in his lung and delicate health. To prevent infection, Tommy lives in a plastic box. His mother visits and talks to the baby through the bubble. Child of color, off to a rough start, but this is only the beginning of a truly ugly and tragic career.

Branwyn explains life to the neonate. Sitting by the bubble, she relates her love for Elton but not enough to abort in order to keep him. The father has the choice to go or stay, but Branwyn couldn’t ask Thomas “if you minded if I didn’t have you and if you didn’t have a life to live.” These literally are words to live by, and Thomas understands their truth no matter what is happening to him.

Minas Nolan has an office across the hall from Intensive Care. He sees and falls in love with Branwyn. In a heartbeat they start a relationship that escalates from friendship to a kiss, to bed, to constant companionship. Branwyn and Tommy move out of a tiny rental in the Crenshaw district to a four story Beverly Hills mansion. Branwyn becomes the mother Eric never had, the boys live as brothers, cared for by Ahn, nurtured in the top private kindergarten. Their natures ideally complement one another. Thomas is cerebral and insightful like his mother. Eric is bold, smart, and charismatic like no one has seen before. Then Branwyn dies. The doctor cannot keep the first grader when Elton and Branwyn’s mother demand custody.

Now the story grows ugly. Within a few weeks of moving from white LA to black LA, first grader Thomas is homeless, dealing drugs, moving in and out the everyday violence that characterizes his new part of the city. At the age of ten years, Thomas is surrogate husband and father to Monique and her baby, working for a vicious drug dealer to pay the rent, keep them fed.

Why? This story goes beyond Mosley's standard agenda. In his colored stories (e.g., Devil in a Blue Dress, Black Betty, Little Scarlett), race always crops its ugly head to complicate Easy's existence. Despite the hardships, Easy invariably finds a way to win, to affirm the dignity of black people, to give white people lessons in morality, humility, or comeuppance. Easy's world is simple: black versus white.

Not so simple, however, is the world of Fortunate Son. Consider the relationship between Thomas and his father Elton. Elton is a big, powerful, sad man. Elton wants his boy to grow up knowing he's black. To prove the point, Elton refuses to walk the first grader to school, despite the day before's assault by a group of punks who slapped and kicked Thomas to the ground.

“I’m scared,” the first grader tells his dad. This is page 94 of a 300+ page work. “I’m scared too,” his dad admits. Thomas, who has seen his father sexually assault May, take two headshots from LAPD batons before being subdued, asks, “You?”

“You know, a black man out here in these streets got a thousand enemies. Men want his money, his woman, his life, and he don’t even know who they are. That’s why I took you, Tommy. I want you to learn what I know. Do you understand what I’m sayin’ to you?”

Tommy understands relativity. He tells Elton it’s like a rabbit, a lion, and an elephant. The rabbit fears the lion. The lion fears the elephant. Feeling an elemental truth challenged, the father spouts back, “The lion is the king of the jungle”. The boy acknowledges the father’s myth but confounds him, “I know. But he’s still afraid of the elephant.” Mosley makes the point: “Father and son stared into each other’s eyes for a moment. Elton had the feeling that he’d missed something, but he had no idea what that something was. 'Go on to school now, boy,' he said at last."

Eric grows into the most popular boy on campus. As a ninth grader at the best private school in LA, he challenges the biggest man on campus to a tennis match and wins. The loser's girlfriend, a gorgeous and pampered senior, finds Eric so irresistible she invites him for a ride and gives herself completely over to Eric. This is not love but obsessive compulsion. Eric exerts a powerful pull on the woman's feelings. She abandons plans for an Ivy League college to take a factotum job and provide Eric with whatever pleasures he cares to give her. She finds him cold and distant. They have a daughter when Eric is in ninth grade.

Looking at Eric's power, Ahn's fear that Eric is bad luck to anyone close to him seems prescient. Thomas, meanwhile, free from Eric's influence, has been shot by police. The youngster is sentenced to juvenile prison by a heartless system, where Tommy, who now carries the nickname "Lucky", is regularly beaten and raped by his tormenters, which seem to be anyone Lucky comes into contact with. Released to a group home, the teenaged Lucky walks away to become a street person who wanders the streets holding conversations with his mother and a dead girl.

Is Fortunate Son a fairy tale? Will Thomas find a life? Will Eric find love? Will all live happily ever after? Simple as these questions appear, they take on vital importance as Mosley unfolds his story. Eric’s is not a likeable portrait, but he doesn't do anything deliberately to hurt others. There certainly exists pain all around him. Pobrecito Tommy. Lucky fills the pages an object of complete empathy for the senselessness of what has befallen him. Yet, Thomas considers himself truly lucky, repeating Branwyn’s words confessed to the baby in the bubble.

Mosley fills the pages with anxiety. Lucky's precarious teetering on the edge of reality and freedom, Eric bringing misery into the world. What can next go wrong? Then matters grow worse.

Ultimately, Fortunate Son is a mystery. It's a mystery why Walter Mosley has put this story out there. This is not a typical Mosley world. Never the twain meet. Being black means leading a wretched outsider existence. Being white means privilege and comfort, whatever may lurk beneath the outward vestiges. In the end, well, that would be telling.

Mosley telegraphs a lot of his moves giving the plot of Fortunate Son a lot of predictability. Which adds to the fun when Mosley twists up a surprise ending that will leave a reader laughing that Walter Mosley can write such melodrama. And he not only gets away with it, he makes it work.

Reading a Walter Mosley novel is never just about character, plot, and affectionate local color. Read the writing. The writer introduces the evil Beverly Hills power broker in only a few paragraphs, but from the first words the character’s sleaziness oozes off the page. Dialect writing doesn’t capture the oracy of speech and shouldn’t try to. Marking dialect with generous use of the apostrophe character and subject verb agreement can be tiring and misleading. Mosley uses dialect to signal Thomas’ increasing distance from the kid who “talks funny” in the first grade because he speaks Beverly Hills English in the Crenshaw district. The only jarring element in this powerful story was a typo at a climactic moment. All that work putting the reader on edge as the awful moments arrive, only to misspell the name of a pistol. He compounds it by naming the gun again, a few pages on, corrected.

Ni modo. Walter Mosely stands alone as a Los Angeles writer. And a crime writer. That he’s determined to ‘splain what it’s like to be black in the anglo United States is his misery. For readers, it produces an excellent story, and the case of Fortunate Son, a true gem.

Before I sign off for the week, here's something for your weekend calendars if you're in my favorite city in Texas, SanAnto. From La Bloga reader Gregg Barrios:

OPEN HOUSE: 6:30 p.m., First Friday, Sept. 1, 2006 Join us for light refreshments and a reading of short scenes from works by San Antonio playwright Gregg Barrios

Dark Horse, Pale Rider Katherine Anne Porter and her would be Chicano biographer “Barrios brings the loves of Porter to life. A classic cultural embrace.” - San Antonio Current

Rancho Pancho Tennessee Williams and his Mexican muse. “An intriguing notion. Barrios’ ambitious play asserts that Williams stormy relationship with Rodriguez was the inspiration of the fireworks between Stanley and Blanche.” – San Antonio Express-News

Plus a special preview of a new work-in-progress Candythe life and times of legendary Texas Bad Girl Candy Barr.

Sounds like an interesting evening. Maybe Gregg will tell La Bloga readers how the reading went.

Maybe you have a good book you've just read and have a burning energy to tell people about it. Write it out! Send your guest reviews to La Bloga or click there. Sabes que, we're always happy to invite gente to share their critical views on important arts and literature issues.

So it goes for the last week of August, 2006. See you next time,

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