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The Awkward Black Man: Stories

Review

The Awkward Black Man: Stories

THE AWKWARD BLACK MAN, the most recent entry in Walter Mosley’s long run of fiction, is dedicated to Toni Morrison, who raised the dialogue of Blackness to the international platform for which Malcolm X strove. This wide-ranging group of Mosley characters, who are plain-speaking and sometimes comfortable, gives readers inside information about the conversations of Black life.

The first story in the collection, “The Good News Is,” reveals the good news that Samson starts losing the extra 30 pounds he has always carried. The bad news is that the growth in his abdomen causing the weight loss is malignant. But more good news: His doctor tells him it has not spread. As the story spins out, it happens that the cancer is only secondary in Samson’s good news-bad news existence: He falls in love with his oncology nurse, who slips off to Ireland with his collection of solid-gold coins from Greece.

"This wide-ranging group of Mosley characters, who are plain-speaking and sometimes comfortable, gives readers inside information about the conversations of Black life."

“Workin’ for white people is always the same thing,” says Ernie, the interoffice mailroom director at Carter Home, who is showing the ropes to Rufus Coombs, the narrator of “Pet Fly.” His superior educational qualifications for employment notwithstanding, Rufus, who is Black, has delivered mail for seven years. One morning, there’s a fly buzzing near a white woman’s desk, and Rufus notices. There should be no flies in the air-conditioned office buildings of New York City, he reasons. Rufus’ attraction and unwanted attention to the lady could have led to his being fired, but an office manager intervenes. Rufus is promoted. How his pet fly figures into the story is another story.

Mosley’s men speak and reflect in short bursts, surprising us at once with an understanding of the moment’s calamity yet with a naivete that is sure to keep them in their place. There are setbacks. We want to point out the deliberate slip when the white manager calls Rufus a boy. We want to say “No, no” when Marguerite asks to come home after a 23-day trip with a boyfriend. We know 3 a.m. isn’t the time to bring up your lover’s lover. The decency in each character is solid; the Mosley mode of operation keeps each man digging into regions of his own soul that he seems unaware of --- and finds what is needed to make the decision that matters.

Kara, the waitress at the BeBop Diner on West 57th, serves Frank the same thing three afternoons a week. She likes him because he thinks outside of himself, and he likes her because she is fresh and interested in him. In this story, “Leading From the Affair,” Frank double-times therapists, crediting Dr. Aguilera with 31 years of encouragement and sensibility. He sees him on Thursdays. On Monday, he engages a new therapist, Dr. Quarterly, and explains to her that he feels like he has been in a race all his life, starting at the same line with millions and millions of others. His anticipation and energy for life push him too far. He races and goes forward 50; then he races and goes backward 49.5. Everyone else is doing regular time and moving forward at 10.

Frank cannot stop racing, he cannot stop going backward, he cannot get ahead. Dr. Quarterly listens and asks if he feels lost. He has to clench his jaw to keep from crying. To avoid taking the drugs prescribed for his depression, Frank has to come clean, tell each therapist of the other’s existence, accept that Kara is too young, break off jarringly with a longtime girlfriend, quit his job and start over.

I doubt that Walter Mosley expects readers to look for the golden lines in his stories before they settle down to get to know his men and women. That’s what some of us do, though. His characters’ smartness often boils down to just a sentence, a toss-away thought that illuminates what drives them: “I’m a fraud.” Or “He’d have liked Melanie to say she loved him, but only if he didn’t have to ask.” The Mosley voices cover the spectrum from dumb despair to sublime wisdom, from sexual intimacy to orgasms on the Staten Island Ferry. The cities are old, and the jobs are ordinary, but he discovers ways to find some truths and show how all life can play out.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on September 18, 2020

The Awkward Black Man: Stories
by Walter Mosley

  • Publication Date: September 15, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802149561
  • ISBN-13: 9780802149565