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.)