I have recently read a most extraordinary novel. At least, that is my opinion, although it is not shared by all of the quidnuncs, The New York Times having given the book a discouraging review, while The Guardian was enthusiastic. The novel is called Fortunate Son, and is written by Walter Mosley. The novel is a parable about racial conditions in the United States. Its detractor wrote that it began from a contrived situation, that it allowed its message to dominate its tone throughout, and that, generally, this theme so overlaid and overweighted it that one could never believe that its characters were real. On the other hand, in its praise, the Guardian reviewer reached back to the great novelists of Victorian England, recalling even the richness of characters that crowded Dickens’s books for an apt comparison.
Mosley is a 64-year-old Los Angeles native of Jewish and Afro-American descent, who wrote his first book in 1990 at the age of 38, and has since written more than 50 works of a bewildering variety. He made his name as the author crime novels featuring a black hero called Easy (for Ezekiel) Rawlins, a black man of easy virtue, with a past in crime, who is trying to go straight as the janitor of a school. He seeks a quiet life, but has such a thorough knowledge of the black communities in Los Angeles, that when the police run into problems contacting or finding black people they want to talk to, they approach Easy and ask for his help. I have read half a dozen of the 15 Easy Rawlins novels, and they have one distinguishing characteristic: they never let the reader forget that in the United States black people live the sort of lives that white people can scarcely imagine. As he told The Guardian in a recent interview: “I’ve been writing about (police brutality) for 25 years. For 450 years, the police ran rampant on black individuals, black souls. They would attack them, beat them, kill them … if you don’t have a camera image, then you don’t know what is happenin’.”
To anyone who is the slightest bit drawn to crime fiction I recommend Mosley as probably the best in that crowded field. But he has more recently branched out into more serious work, and I notice his name now cropping up bracketed with other great American novelists of past and present.
Fortunate Son begins with a young black woman, who was abandoned by her lover as soon as she declared her pregnancy, who gives birth to a gravely deformed child who had to be kept in one of those oxygen tents to be given even a slight chance of survival. Every day the young woman sat by the contraption, talking to the little boy who couldn’t see or hear her, sitting until late at night, and thus attracting the interest of a doctor whose wife had died giving birth to a handsome, strapping blonde baby. He suggested to the young woman that the only chance her child had of surival was if she took him out of the hospital and wrapped her arms around him. The doctor began to give the woman a ride home, and this casual friendship developed into a love-affair in which the doctor accepted the woman with her baby into his home, repeatedly offering to marry her, an offer she refused, presumably because of her lower social status.
The two children, although so different, grew up with an indissoluble affection, an affection that underlay what seemed on the surface to be the total dichotomy between them. The white boy, Eric, was first in everything, top scholar, top athlete, every girl’s dream, whereas the black boy Thomas had difficulty keeping on his feet, was slow at learning, yet had his own method of finding out about the world by studying the small animals and insects in their back yard. He developed the habit of kneeling on the floor so as to meld with the world, and with his dead mother, who seemed to him to be still alive.
Neither boy felt fulfilled if the other was absent, but when their black mother died unexpectedly, the black boy’s biological father, who had never shown a smidgen of interest in him until this moment, appeared and demanded to be given custody of the child. Rudely, Tommy was thrust into the rigours of the poverty of Los Angeles, subject to a raging, alcoholic father, a man consumed with bitterness at how his life had gone, which didn’t prevent him from leaving the child unfed for days at a time. Eventually the boy took to skipping out of school in his efforts to keep himself alive, creating for himself his own space, his own world in the back alleys behind his new home. He had always shown what his brother had considered an immense, mysterious wisdom, a depth of understanding that his white brother stood in awe of, but now that wisdom was lost on the people around him, who, when he did not appear for school, casually wrote him out of the enrolment, leaving him to go his own way, wherever or that might be not being of concern to them for more than a few moments. It is in this part of the novel that so many amazing characters appear, many of them women full of warmth towards their children, yet whose lives were overburdened by the hostility they had to suffer from the men in their lives.
Inevitably, Thomas at a very young age realized he could make a living for himself by running messages for the local crime boss, and so he became a drug runner, as innocent of what he was doing as he could be, until that moment when the police bust up their gang, and thrust him into prison with a long sentence. When his sentence drew towards an end, he was transferred to a halfway house. One day he took a walk in the streets, and just never came back: he did not think of escaping, just of keeping going wherever his feet took him.
One day he called his former home, hoping to talk to his white brother, but the Vietnamese maid, herself scarred from her experiences in the war in her country, told him not to call again.
Eric, meantime, was having the problems of success. He came to believe that he was sure to bring misfortune to anyone he loved. He got himself involved in a tempestuous love affair, exerting a deadly fascination over a girl who knew he didn’t love her, but who couldn’t keep away from him.
The end of the book is perhaps predictable: indeed, as I read this telescoped version of the events, it does sound rather staged, yet such is Walter Mosley’s power with words that you simply can’t stop turning the page, marvelling that anyone could dream up so complex a situation and yet give it such life that one continues, agonized, to the end.
The reader is left wondering, which was the Fortunate Son?