Mosley, who was just awarded a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation, has so many titles to his name that one could tire of eating carryout too often. But “The Awkward Black Man” is different. Mosley’s stories seem to overlap when it comes to the type of Black men he writes about. In this collection, the men are usually over 50. They have physical shortcomings when it comes to being attractive to women, and love triangles abound. There are moments when one might prefer basic arithmetic to geometry.
Mosley’s men are working class and “first rung” middle-class bank types. At times, their actions are misunderstood. In “Pet Fly,” Rufus Coombs’s giving of gifts to a fellow employee is interpreted as sexual harassment. Albert Roundhouse, in “Almost Alyce,” is from a working-class family, but things fall apart, and he becomes homeless. Because of their age, the men in Mosley’s world have difficulty starting over again. Their cards have been played and not even sex can provide comfort. In “Leading From the Affair,” Frank Lassiter wonders, “What did younger women want with older men except for security and then marriage?”
If stories can be haunted by their own narrative, then “The Awkward Black Man” is a must-read for the retired. Mosley explores the same themes in his fiction that the poet Donald Hall examined in his memoirs. How does one squeeze words into that last cup of tenderness?
One of the best stories in this book, “The Letter,” explores the different degrees of life, from infidelities to suicide, and in relationships, not just with women, but between fathers and sons. Mosley’s reference to “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, carries the story forward, blessing his fiction like holy water in the back of a cathedral. “The Letter” is what one reads after listening to “Kind of Blue” by the Miles Davis sextet. One classic deserves another.
But where one might find a glossary or appendix in a nonfiction book, Mosley closes with “An Unlikely Series of Conversations.” This short story is what might be considered a “coaster,” something you include in a collection simply to prevent a stain on the table. What doesn’t work are the references to race and identity. The character Laertes Jackson sounds too much like Cornel West without a suit. What can make African American literature “awkward” is when race becomes the center of things and we only see the sun and not the moon.
What shouldn’t be overlooked before putting the book down is the gem “The Black Woman in the Chinese Hat.” Here is Rufus Coombs again, and here is Walter Mosley perhaps leaving clues and creating a mystery between two short stories. Is it the same Rufus? This story is so nice and New York that Rufus and the woman, Chai, eventually find themselves on the Staten Island Ferry. The sex between them is as casual as their conversation earlier in the day. When Mosley ends this story, Chai’s touch lingers.
“The Awkward Black Man” is a collection that meditates on health, aging and life. It’s the type of book that can restore one’s balance without a cane.
E. Ethelbert Miller is a poet, memoirist and literary activist. He hosts the weekly WPFW morning radio show “On the Margin.”
The Awkward Black Man
By Walter Mosley
Grove. 336 pp. $26