Since Walter Mosley published his first book, Devil in a Blue Dress, in 1990, he’s been exposing, dismantling and subverting stereotypes. Race, ethnicity, gender, class — he’s brought a fresh and discerning eye to all of them, in the midst of writing beautifully crafted fiction and thoughtful nonfiction. I can count on his books not only to engage me but to surprise me, and to make me think.
He does all that again in his new short story collection, The Awkward Black Man. These 17 stories range across styles and genres, but there’s a common thread. Their narrators (and most of their characters) are Black, and racism is part of their lives but doesn’t define them — each one has a unique story, a rich life.
Mosley’s accomplishments garnered major recognition on Thursday, when the National Book Foundation announced he was this year’s recipient of its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Previous winners include Toni Morrison, Robert Caro and Arthur Miller. Mosley will be the first Black man to receive the honor, to be presented at the virtual National Book Awards ceremony in November.
Mosley has published more than 50 books, fiction and nonfiction, in a variety of genres, and written for the stage and television. He’s best known for his 14 bestselling novels about Los Angeles private investigator Easy Rawlins, which combine top-notch crime fiction with the vividly detailed social history of working-class minority communities in L.A.
A few of the stories in The Awkward Black Man are set in Los Angeles, but most play out in New York City (Mosley’s longtime residence). That includes Showdown on the Hudson, a classic Western set in present-day Manhattan. Its teenage narrator befriends young Billy Consigas, who has just moved to Harlem from Texas. In a Stetson hat, fancy shirts and boots, he’s “an honest-to-God, one-hundred-percent bona fide black Texas cowboy.”
Billy has beautiful manners, a Cowboy Colt .44 six-shooter and the fastest draw anyone in Harlem has seen. We all know what happens to the cowboy with the fastest draw, although Mosley gives it a 21st century gloss: The fast-draw contests are judged by smartphone videos, with no bullets fired. Until they are.
Billy is the most theatrical main character in these stories. Most of them are narrated by men who are anything but; they work in insurance companies or banks, write or teach in universities. Many are fathers and husbands, or ex-husbands. A fair number of them are in relationships with significantly younger women, the kind of thing that starts out hot and wild, although Mosley is interested in what happens after that heat has cooled a decade or two later.
Leading From the Affair puts a witty spin on its tale of infidelity. Frank Lassiter is a middle-aged copy editor at an online magazine consortium — maybe not the first guy you’d think of as a player. But not only is he juggling a couple of complicated romantic relationships, he’s cheating on his longtime therapist with a new therapist. It all goes sideways when the lovers and psychiatrists find out and dump him, and he loses his job. Then Mosley gives it yet another twist.
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Cut, Cut, Cut starts out as another story of relationships, this time focused on online dating services and their unpredictable results. But the story of Marilee Frith-DeGeorgio’s involvement with a shy, unprepossessing plastic surgeon named Martin Hull takes a wildly surreal turn, not when he tells her he’s been questioned in a double murder, but when she discovers his plans for the “next step in human evolution.”
Some of these stories examine lives of profound loneliness and isolation. In Between Storms, Michael Trey survives a disastrous hurricane in his Manhattan apartment. But as the city reopens, he doesn’t go out. He obsesses over not just the next storm but about terrorists and climate change, racism and epidemics ― “all this came together in Michael’s mind in his apartment three days after the disaster that he finally understood would never end.”
So he barricades himself in his apartment, gets fired, stocks up on beans and tuna, loses himself in research. Then a neighbor tells him, “You went viral on the Internet now that the cops couldn’t beat down your door.” The media swarm on his story, and supporters mass on the street under his window, although what they support is unclear. There’s only one thing to do.
Although these stories were written before the coronavirus pandemic, Between Storms seems eerily prescient, Breath even more so. It’s the Kafkaesque story of a recently retired college professor who suffers a severe asthma attack, loses consciousness and awakes in a hospital bed to find that he is dangerously ill, and that he had no identification or possessions when he was brought in.
Because he was about to move to another country, no one realizes he’s missing. Without his cellphone, he doesn’t know anyone’s number. He tells his doctor he’s a professor, but the university replies he’s retired, no longer has health insurance and has moved away. Caught between illness so profound he’s unsure of reality and the absurdities of bureaucracy, he wonders whether he’s already died and gone to hell.
Haunted goes full-on ghost story, wrapped in darkly satirical humor. When unsuccessful author Paul Henry gets his 1,000th rejection letter from a magazine editor, he’s so furious he dies of a heart attack. On the other side, Paul discovers that he’s called back into ghostly consciousness whenever someone living talks about him. He revels in the thought of tormenting the editor he hates so much, but even in the afterlife there are unexpected consequences.
One of the most striking things about this collection of stories is how many of them have happy endings. Among the most moving is Otis. Its main character, Crash, is a young boy recently diagnosed with mild autism, but gifted in mathematics. After a dispute with a teacher, he runs away from his family’s West Village home in New York kid fashion: He takes the subway, then the bus, to a park in Queens. There he sets up his tent and has an encounter with a young homeless man. Otis is a little scary, but there’s a strange bond between them.
Crash is soon home, but his brief adventure has reverberations. He grows up into a successful career, learns that his mother might have worked a miracle and, years later, uses an algorithm to find Otis and discovers he might have worked a little miracle of his own.
The Awkward Black Man: Stories
By Walter Mosley
Grove Press, 328 pages, $26
Times Festival of Reading
Walter Mosley will be a featured author at the virtual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, Nov. 12-14. If you have a question for Mosley, email it with the subject line “Festival author question” to firstname.lastname@example.org.