Walter Mosley offers another masterful outing with “The Awkward Black Man,” (Grove Press) to expand an already extensive range, wielding a sure hand at short fiction. The prolific, iconic wordsmith, a stark conveyor of life experience, has given us the sardonic sleuthing of his Easy Rawlins Mysteries (“Devil in a Blue Dress,” “Bad Boy Brawly Brown”), gritty crime (“Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned”), original e-books (“The Further Adventures of Tempest Landry”), non-fiction (“What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace”) and comedic drama (“The Fall of Heaven”).
“The Awkward Black Man” marks a fascinating foray into existentialism, stories about misfits, and square pegs whose lives, frustratedly, often desperately, try to fit in a round hole. For the most part, these seriously lost souls are self-destructive and eccentric to the point of social suicide. Some are, in fact, mad as a hatter, murderously so in “Cut, Cut, Cut” and “Showdown on the Hudson.”
“Pet Fly” originally in the New Yorker, gives us Rufus, an anonymous, overqualified office clerk, poli-sci college grad settling for sorting mail and interoffice memos with vague notions of someday maybe possibly ascending to corporate communications.
Things never get anywhere near that far as he subsists in a rut of inertia, fascinated by the one fly that keeps landing on his window and “His coloring was unusual, a metallic green. The dull red eyes seemed too large for the body, like he was an intelligent mutant fly from some far-flung future on late-night television.”
He gets around to naming the fly Andy, conducting one-way conversations with it about the crush he has on a co-worker and miserable job he’s doing of acting on it. Rufus grows so attached to the insect he sets out honey water and shares his Taco Bell beef burrito. It escapes him when Andy shows up missing that flies don’t live long.
As if his existence wasn’t pathetic enough, he gets called on the carpet at work for allegedly harassing a woman it took all his nerve to just give the gift of a paperweight. Fate, it goes without saying, is not kind to Rufus whose life started out in a valley and then goes downhill. The note on which “Pet Fly” ends isn’t any kinder. It is, however, sweetly sentimental as he dutifully honors his friend’s passing.
Along with tale after fairly grim tale of oddballs despairing in mental and emotional anguish, locked in prisons with no hope of parole, Mosley, once in a while changes pace, giving a lighthearted touch.
“Haunted” is the humorous, bittersweet ghost story of failed writer driven to complete distraction. So obsessed with impressing a magazine editor who constantly rejected him, he hangs around to haunt that editor from the grave, only to see his work published posthumously—because his wife beds and weds the editor.
Another exception is actually hopeful. “The Black Woman in the Chinese Hat” charms, the tale of a different Rufus, just as woefully inept, mesmerized by Chai, dyed in the wool femme fatale. They meet at a courtyard where she leisurely sunbathes, sexily clad, and, he nearly suffocating in a suit, has wandered by and caught her eye.
In short order, it’s a toss-up between going home to hang with his nerdy roommates or be enticed by the flirtatious lady. On the face of it, no choice. The ensuing misadventure, by turns ecstatic and agonizing leaves the man in such a state, boredom should be a relief. Still, you marvel at how this woman, who never gave a fig about him, gave his life meaning, indeed gave it magic.
Taut narratives collect an array of remarkably imperfect people quirky as the day is long. “The Awkward Black Man” is a slice of life you don’t see coming and aren’t likely to forget.