When David Churchill began reading Walter Mosley's detective novels, he discovered that they weren't just character-driven mysteries. In this piece from Critics at Large, Churchill looks into the philosophical discourses they contain.
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.
here. Or go tohttp://www.wordplaysalon.com 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.
|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.
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.
- originally published on October 26, 2012 in Critics at Large.