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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.