Walkin’ the Dog is the second novel in Walter Mosley’s Fortlow series, featuring Socrates Fortlow, an ex-convict who has settled down to live a quiet life, but who is constantly challenged by events in his neighborhood and community that make it difficult for him to remain a peaceful man. His difficulty is that he cannot ignore injustice. He realizes, however, that fighting that injustice may jeopardize his current situation: For the first time in his life, Socrates may have the opportunity to live a normal life with a decent job and home. He is barely able to believe his good fortune, even when he is offered a promotion at the produce market where he works. Socrates wonders if he wants the added responsibility the promotion entails. He values his independence, and a part of him would prefer not to give up some of that independence in return for a better job.

Socrates lives in a high-crime neighborhood but has managed to stay out of jail for nine years. He has a modest and very circumscribed domestic life that includes a two-legged dog named Killer. It is hard for him to live on an even keel, when the police continue to pester him, trying to link Socrates to various crimes in his area. Inured to police suspicion, Socrates just barely manages to keep his temper, although he stands up for his rights and will not be bullied.

The novel takes the form of a series of vignettes, complete in themselves as short stories but linked by Socrates’ continual troubles with the law. These run-ins culminate in his campaign to protest the violent crimes of a police officer who has abused and even killed African Americans. Socrates turns himself into a walking billboard, and though at first he seems destined to be arrested, he is soon joined by others who share his concerns. Ultimately, one man’s protests become a community’s cause, which in turn generates media attention and pressure on the police department to discipline and punish its own. His success represents a double triumph for Socrates, since his first impulse was simply to murder the officer. It strengthens his resolve to seek ways to channel his rage into socially responsible behavior. At the same time, he refuses to accept the status quo; he continues to take risks that he knows may result in his return to prison.

Walkin' the Dog Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Socrates Fortlow spent twenty-seven years in prison for murder, and has been out for nine, but life is hardly any easier for him free at sixty. He lives in an abandoned house off an alley in South Central Los Angeles, holds a marginal job at a supermarket in a better neighborhood, and spends each day straddling the two worlds and trying to stay alive. Socrates lives on the edge of life: His thoughts are filled with memories of prison, what it has done to him, and how easy it would be to return, and yet he is always on the brink of exploding in rage at the violence and injustice and inhumanity around him. Prison is now inside him.

There is more to Socrates Fortlow than his profile shows, however, and Walter Mosley’s powerful novel reveals just what this hero is made of—and how he can change that makeup. Actually, as Mosley has said in interviews about the work, Walkin’ the Dog is really “twelve stories straining to be a novel,” but the dozen short fiction pieces are so similar in setting and character, tone, and plot development, that they easily fulfill the requirements of a novel. In the first story or chapter, Socrates nearly fights his black supervisor at work and is only saved by the appearance of Marty Gonzalez, the boss. Marty wants to move Socrates up from bagger to produce manager, but Socrates is not yet ready for that responsibility. The course of the twelve chapters or stories of Walkin’ the Dog reveals Socrates Fortlow moving to a place where such responsibility is possible.

Readers realize in this very first chapter that there is more to Socrates Fortlow than his statistics reveal. He cares for other people and has a powerful instinct to help them. His informally adopted son Darryl is clearly close to flunking out of high school, but Socrates helps to get him a new living situation that keeps him in school. He aids Darryl; at the same time he is himself unable to accept help from others; he is the true loner, living in his illegal house with only the two-legged dog Killer as a companion. Real change is precipitated when a young woman is killed and dumped in his alley, and the police jail the ex-convict Socrates as a likely suspect. Socrates has the stoic demeanor, learned from decades in prison, to handle anything the police can do to him, but he does not know how to handle the people who help him in this situation; “I don’t know how to act when people get all in my business,” he confesses when friends get him released. “Socrates felt big and angry. . . . Like Killer, his two- legged dog, who for no reason sometimes in the middle of the night sat back on his legless haunches and cried for all he was worth.” Like his dog, Socrates is a survivor, but he has been crippled by his collisions with life, and they have left him deeply scarred. Walkin’ the Dog follows Socrates as he learns to live with those scars and to move beyond them.

In the second chapter, Socrates suddenly recalls a promise he made to a friendly cellmate, and he plants an African tree in his yard and makes love to a beautiful woman in memory of the convict. Another ex-convict searches out Socrates, trying to find the secret of dealing with the guilt for his crimes, and Socrates tells him, “We got to see past bein’ guilty. We already been there.” Lydell Samuels does not have Socrates’ strength, however, and ends up killing himself. Right Burke was Socrates’ best friend years before, and Socrates helped him to die with dignity. Now he overcomes the hostility of Burke’s survivor, Luvia, and accompanies her to the grave to pay homage to Burke. The connection later leads to another act of charity, when Socrates finds the trumpeter Hoagland Mars drunk on the street and takes him to Luvia’s house for rehabilitation. When a huge mugger confronts Socrates in his alley one night, the former convict kills him with a stone and then awaits the police. When they do not come, he atones for his act by helping to embalm Ronald Logan and going to his funeral. Each chapter or story thus reveals another aspect of Socrates’ humanity unfolding as he slowly sheds the prison of his own life and mind.

Socrates spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to live in this violent, racist world that surrounds him. It seems “like every time somethin’ gets serious or important you got to put up blood and freedom just to stay in the game,”...

(The entire section is 1791 words.)