I started 2017 reading Walter Mosley’s decade-old publication, Fortunate Son. Mosley is a mystery writer of note having authored the famous Easy Rawlins series. While prolific, Mosley’s experiments outside of mystery have achieved “mixed success” as Diane Scharper noted in her Baltimore Sun review of the novel.
Admittedly, the first few chapters filled me with skepticism. In Fortunate Son, Mosley tells a tale of two boys – one white, the other black – who live as brothers in childhood. The white brother, Eric, comes from a life of privilege both economically and physically although his mother died during childbirth. The black brother, Thomas, is born with respiratory problems and an absent, abusive father. Eric and Thomas are brought together by their parents – the LA surgeon Dr. Minas Nolan and the hardworking, flower shop attendant Branwyn Beerman – who fall in love and move in together despite their difference in race and class.
When Branwyn dies unexpectedly, Eric and Thomas are separated for a decade during which they lead distinct lives. Eric excels at a prestigious private high school, attends UCLA, is a tennis pro and popular with girls. Thomas on the other hand is submerged into an LA ghetto where he is neglected by his biological father, becomes a 10-year-old “drug dealer” (as defined by the courts), serves prison time and eventually ends up on the streets. The brothers are finally united following a dramatic turn of events and the question of fortune arises – who is the fortunate son? Eric may be privileged, but he can’t shake a certain feeling of emptiness and his successes appear dependent on the destruction of those closest to him. Thomas has a keen sense of understanding, instinct and compassion; material possessions don’t concern him and the fact that he’s still alive is a testament to his natural resilience.
Yet, the characters Mosley creates in this work are archetypes and my skepticism came from the sense that this was a book meant to sing kumbaya to race relations – the moral of the story being that these two young men considered each other brothers in spite of the aforementioned circumstances. Previous reviewers cited Mosley’s reliance on stereotypes and sometimes lacklustre prose as faults. The work was deemed didactic – a commentary on the power of love overcoming the history and circumstance of racism.
I think most of the reviewers missed the point. Firstly, Mosley is an excellent storyteller and my skepticism quickly dissipated because I got sucked into the plot. Secondly, this book was about the crime of color, not the power of love. The parallels between Thomas’ and Eric’s lives are stark. When they’re finally reunited, it’s presumptuous to think that Thomas regaining close proximity to whiteness will get him back on the right track.
For all the time that Thomas has spent in jail and on the streets, he never actually committed any crimes. He was going with the motions, he was trying to survive. But it’s the color of Thomas’ skin that made survival criminal. When Thomas and Eric run away to New York near the end of the novel, Thomas is arrested after being racially profiled and nearly ends up a prisoner once more. Afterwards, he tells Eric, “I don’t like bein’ in jail. But I think that’s where I’m gonna end up…I didn’t do nuthin’ today, man. I was just walkin’ in the park thinkin’ about you guys an’ the pictures. But these cops just grabbed me, and even though they knew I didn’t do nuthin’ they took me to jail.”
Fortunate Son did examine philosophical questions of fortune and misfortune with storytelling full of fantastic plot twists. Yet, to me, Mosley’s examination of the ways in which the color of an innocent child’s skin was continuously criminalized is the heart of the novel.