Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Socratic Method

I have been waiting eleven years for a follow-up to Walkin' the Dog, the second of Walter Mosley's profound and moving Socrates Fortlow short story collections. I devoured Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned in 1997 and voraciously consumed Dog in 1999. I am such a fan of Mosley's Fortlow novels that I find it incomprehensible that I missed the publication of The Right Mistake: the Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow (2008). And, yet, somehow I did. In a remarkably serendipitous "recommendations" e-mail from (received in the summer of 2010) I was advised of a hardcover edition of Mistake at a bargain price ($8.74) - less than both the paperback and e-book editions.

Some things are meant to be. Two years ago I may not have been in the proper frame of mind to fully appreciate the delicious irony and profound wisdom of something, anything, being the "right mistake." Today finds me not only in the right frame of mind but primed and ready to receive Fortlow's sad, savvy and always deeply human further investigations.

It is also somewhat fitting that I come into possession of the third book of the Fortlow trilogy in the fiftieth anniversary year of the publication of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch (played in the movie of the same name by Gregory Peck) is To Kill a Mockingbird's most upright character, representing the moral ideal of both a lawyer and a human being: he is brutally honest, highly moral, extremely opinionated, a tireless crusader for good causes (even hopeless ones), a virtual pacifist and, for the most part, devoid of any of the racial or class prejudices afflicting the other citizens of fictional Maycomb, Alabama.

Finch goes to great pains to instruct his children on the importance of being open-minded, judicious, generous neighbors and citizens. He is eventually revealed to be an expert marksman, but he had chosen to keep this fact hidden from his children so that they would not in any way think of him as a man of violence. He was once the best shot in Maycomb County, but quit shooting because he felt he had an unfair advantage.

Now, Socrates Fortlow is everything Atticus Finch is - brutally honest, highly moral, extremely opinionated, a tireless crusader for good causes - and he is everything Finch is not. While Finch is better than his peers, a lawyer, a state representative, a loving father, Fortlow is the worst of us - a double murderer and a rapist. While Finch has been re-elected to the state legislature many times, often without opposition, Fortlow has spent twenty-seven years doing hard time for the crimes he committed. Finch is our highest ideal; Fortlow is nothing nice.

This is what makes Fortlow the greater literary creation.

When we first meet Fortlow in Outnumbered he is living in negative space, in a hallway between two burnt out furniture stores. His kitchen is "only big enough for a man and a half" and the second room, where he sat and slept, was no bigger. He has a card table for dining and a fold-up plastic chair for a seat. He cooked all his meals on a single hotplate and drank his beverages, mostly water, out of mayonnaise jars.

Fortlow is a man living off the grid. He is literally a man who has nothing and no one. But, from the opening pages of
Outnumbered to the last pages of Mistake Fortlow does what he do - teaching life lessons, doing favors small and large, and gaining grace from his noble, selfless actions.

From the depths of depravity, Fortlow becomes the eminence grise of his South Central Los Angeles neighborhood - a journey movingly and memorably examined in The Right Mistake.


Friday, August 6, 2010

El Sargento Negro

I know this is a day late and a dollar short but TMC had a Woody Strode marathon on yesterday.

Strode, an All-American athlete at UCLA (he played football with Jackie Robinson) was one of the first blacks to play in the NFL. He is probably best remembered for his brief Golden Globe-nominated role in Spartacus (1960) as the Ethiopian gladiator Draba, in which he fights Kirk Douglas to the death.

Strode played memorable villains opposite three screen Tarzans. In 1958, he appeared as Ramo opposite Gordon Scott in Tarzan's Fight for Life. In 1963, he was cast opposite Jock Mahoney's Tarzan as both the dying leader of an unnamed Asian country and that leader's unsavory brother, Khan, in Tarzan's Three Challenges. In the late 1960s, he appeared in several episodes of the Ron Ely Tarzan television series.

He became a close friend of director John Ford, who gave him the title role in Sergeant Rutledge (1960) as a member of the Ninth Cavalry falsely accused of rape and murder; he appeared in smaller roles in Ford's later films Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Seven Women (1966).

I watched Sergeant Rutledge, which contains some of the best and worst black characterizations I have ever seen on film juxtaposed against Ford's iconic Monument Valley tableaus, and Once Upon A Time in the West, a truly great spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone and starring Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Jack Elam, Strode and Claudia Cardinale.

The opening shot of 6 foot four inch Strode from his boots to the top of his cowboy hat is worth the cost of admission.

Henry Fonda, as a truly evil man; Bronson, as a zen-like drifter, and Cardinale as a strong-willed frontier heroine, are all revelations.