Haiku, by Andrew Vachss, and The Right Mistake, by Walter Mosley

Haiku, by Andrew Vachss, and The Right Mistake, by Walter Mosley

Tom Jennings finds much of interest, as well as inevitable limitations, in two American novels exploring positive worldviews among the impoverished

The Philosophy of Poverty. Book review – Tom Jennings
While hard-boiled fiction always foregrounded class conflict, it typically dramatises a cynically heroic, ruggedly individualistic ‘little man’ struggling against modern society’s overwhelming institutional machines – the macho solipsism captured by the characterisations ‘private-dick’ and ‘private-eye’ essentially reproducing capitalist ideology and valorising petit-bourgeois social Darwinism. Contemporary noir revisionists generally faithfully follow Chandler and Hammett’s templates, tinged with progressive motifs but neglecting the potential of collective action. However, two prominent authors who consistently test generic conventions have recently published books with explicitly social and community-based visions meditating on the pragmatic development of grass-roots philosophy and its application to pressing needs among the poor and oppressed: Haiku by Andrew Vachss (Vintage 2009) and The Right Mistake by Walter Mosley (Basic Civitas, 2008).
Haiku’s events are recounted from the point of view of Ho, a Japanese former kung-fu sensei who dropped out after blaming himself for a favoured disciple’s murder. Living on the Big Apple streets in a spartan search for purpose, his calm nonjudgmental trustworthiness attracts a loose bunch of fellow homeless precipitated there by various misfortunes magnifying their own personality tragedies. As the alcoholic ex-gangster poet, psychotic Vietnam veteran, obsessive-compulsive schizophrenic, manically gambling ex-stockbroker, and idiot-savant autistic are unobtrusively nurtured by Ho’s caring clarity of comprehension and conduct, their dovetailing needinesses and capabilities gradually allow fractious conviviality to formulate a project transcending the hitherto all-consuming sustenance of bare life as and from the ‘rubbish’ that mainstream society discards. The plan’s success signals the possibility of surviving and thriving, while also fulfilling Ho’s quest – turning out, in effect, to render redundant his presumed role of privileged teacher.
One impetus for this focus was the shameful municipal policy of systematically starving welfare services, trumped by NY mayor Guiliani’s ‘zero tolerance’ of the poor’s visibility near valuable real-estate. Whereas the damaged life-histories of the novel’s cast quite clearly reflect those of everyone – but for random twists of fate – when the hypocrisies of respectability are stripped away which otherwise facilitate disavowal of fears and hatreds, attributed instead to criminals, demons and other subhuman elements. The author rhetorically insists that true moral nobility and humanity, inextricably bound up with inadequacy, nevertheless reside here – with the salvaging of Brewster’s pulp-fiction library metaphorically cherishing the accumulated counter-knowledge of the lower-classes. Yet, sadly – though we wouldn’t wish them continued destitution – the destiny of this tribe’s collective strength is merely fragmented re-integration into polite society. Worse, on the latter’s terms, with the transition midwived by selfless social workers – albeit those forging rogue practices flouting prevailing prescriptions. Perhaps unintentionally, then, the best these dispossessed can expect is holding liberal democracy to its dishonest promises.
As with Vachss’ Burke saga (closing instalment reviewed in Freedom, 10th October 2009), Walter Mosley is best known for his crime series starring Easy Rawlins. The Right Mistake is itself the third collection of ‘The Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow’ – short stories with an episodic rather than linear narrative thrust introduced in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1997) and Walkin’ the Dog (2000). Now, after spending half his life in jail for rape and murder, ten trying years later sees Socrates, aged 60, with an LA toehold, tiny apartment and drudge job. His neighbourhood standing rests on not only imposing physical stature and prowess, but a resolutely thoughtful and questioning demeanour – arising from anguish over past evils culminating in age-old philosophical ruminations concerning honour and moral conduct – apt for troubleshooting and arbitrating conflicts afflicting those near and dear. His intuitive self-taught ethical commitment infects others – an impressive, if unexpected, outcome leading him to institute a weekly grass-roots debating chamber, the Thinker’s Club.
In its volunteer-run space, the Big Nickel, a representative sample of diversely reputable friends and neighbours – including a carpenter, gambler, rag-and-bone dealer, musician, drugs-gang lieutenant, lawyer and martial arts tutor – mull over the meaning of life with respect to immediate mutual comnunity problems, without recourse to higher powers, authorities or conceptual frameworks. Gradually, self-organised offshoot initiatives tackling concrete issues attract deeper and wider attention and involvement, along with righteous admiration, ire and interference – respectively from those appreciating the practical social, cultural and political potential, compared to others whose less philanthropic control, influence and investment are exposed by genuinely autonomous organisation. Police, church, media and bureaucratic attacks are warded off with combinations of solidarity, fortitude and fortuitous circumstance, while previously twisted and tortuous personal and family relationships may heal and nurture once again – the seeds of hope seemingly sown in the ghetto’s unpromising soil.
But notwithstanding a necessarily strong rooting in critical and self-critical practise and inspiration, the success of Socrates’ brainchild seems painted in an excessively rosy glow. As with Haiku’s bundled psychopathologies, differences of agenda, capacity and constitution may not be so readily resolved – however generous the goodwill – and internal and infernal frictions, factions and fractures surely pose greater basic threats. Moreover, even absenting a dialectical sensitivity, some measure of traumatic failure would be invaluably instructive, not to mention realistic, in a dynamic of collective development that didn’t ultimately depend on the superhuman qualities of charismatic individuals – even when traditional leadership is avoided, as in these narratives. If the crucial human strengths and weaknesses, in short, exist between as much as within individuals, then preoccupations with egoistic redemption may not be terribly useful.
Of course, in addition to the demands and expectations of crime fiction, these authors work with the scripts and discourses that produced and modulate their expressive identities. Mosley acknowledges that his writing pays tribute to the trials and tribulations of his own parents’ civil rights generation, deploying the idealism and insights of succeeding post-sixties cohorts in articulating African-American experience. Vachss exhibits a comparably refreshing emphasis on elective family and identity-in-action – perhaps more clearly responding to contemporary post-industrial, postmodern fragmentation, even if here refracted through a prism of ersatz Taoist existentialism. Both also highlight the central determination of class structure and process in simultaneously prompting and spoiling progressive change – so if these particular visions of present prospects fail to completely convince and satisfy, well, neither do any others this reader has seen. Furthermore such skilful, forthright attempts are regrettably very rare, thus representing valuable contributions to our own evolving understandings.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 4, February 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:

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Tom Jennings
Mar 10 2010 11:52


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