Only eight years after serving out a prison sentence for murder, Socrates Fortlow lives in a tiny, two-room Watts apartment, where he cooks on a hot plate, scavenges for bottles, drinks and wrestles with his demons. Struggling to control a seemingly boundless rage–as well as the power of his massive “rock-breaking” hands–Socrates must find a way to live an honourable life as a black man on the margins of a white world, a task which takes every ounce of self-control he has.
Title: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned | Author: Walter Mosley | Series: Socrates Fortlow #1 | Publisher: Serpent’s Tail| Pages: 208 | ISBN: 9781852427023 | Publication date: 1997| Source: Purchased
Shockingly, I think I’ve only read two other Walter Mosley books. The first was the Easy Rawlins prequel ‘Gone Fishin’’, which I read years ago. The second was ‘Down the River Unto the Sea’, which I read earlier this year and reviewed here. Neither of those books came even close to preparing me for the brilliance of ‘Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned’. It’s a staggeringly good book.
What makes it great is hard to put your finger on. Partly, it’s the structure: it’s a series of short stories about the same character that come together into a book that doesn’t necessarily have the narrative arc of a novel, but is just as satisfying a whole.
Partly, it’s the protagonist: Socrates Fortlow is fantastic character. An ex-con determined to go straight and make a new life for himself in Los Angeles after decades of incarceration. He strides through the stories like a force of nature. His moral code is unshakeable and the violence within him constantly feels in conflict with his zen-like calm and wisdom. He reminded me a little of Ogami Ittō, the vengeful but strangely peaceful samurai hero of the ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ manga series. Fortlow is far from innocent, but his struggle for redemption is inspirational.
And partly it’s Mosley’s searing analysis of racism in America. He covers the LA riots, the inherent bias of the justice system, the civil rights movement and the casual bigotry of the dominant society. Fortlow and the other characters represent the struggling underclass of the modern world. Living hand to mouth in a city famous for its millionaires, and pulling themselves through each day through sheer force of will.
Taken together these parts make for an incredibly good book. The prose has the terse punchiness of the best crime fiction, the sense of place is superb and Socrates Fortlow is the most memorable hero I’ve met in years.