A beautiful parable
about a tragic
American condition

''Fortunate Son''
By Walter Mosley
(Little, Brown and Company; 313 pps.; $23.95)
Buy at Amazon

Reviewed by John Orr
May 2006

Fortunate Son coverWe might have come to Mosley for the gumshoe thrills of his Easy Rawlin's stories, or maybe because someone said, ''Hey, read this guy. He's great.''

But we stay with Mosley because the prose is alive, warm like a body held close to us, and so full of ideas that it makes poetry blush and wish it, too, could be so meaningful. In Mosley there is usually the truthful ugliness and beauty of real life, and a clear message from Mosley about the way things ought to be.

With ''Fortunate Son,'' Mosley gives us what is clearly a parable, the story of two boys, born of different parents and from different backgrounds, who become brothers.

Walter Mosley

The prolific author talks with John Orr about his work habits, his books and racism in America and the world today.

''Thomas Beerman was born with a hole in his lung,'' Mosley begins, writing of a tiny black baby who spends the first six months of his life in a West L.A. hospital. His mother, Branwyn, came to see him every day after work. ''She couldn't touch him because he was kept in a glass-enclosed, germ-free environment. But they stared into each other's eyes for hours every day.''

One night, leaving the hospital at 11 p.m. for the bus ride down to Crenshaw, a heart surgeon named Minas Nolan offers Branwyn a ride home. Nolan is a widower whose wife died giving birth to their son Eric, who ''came out weighing twelve pounds and twelve ounces, with a thick mane of blond hair, and arms and legs flailing. One of the nurses had commented that it was as if Eric had drained all of the life out of his mother from the inside, and by the time he was born, she was all used up.''

Nolan and Branwyn have dinner at an all-night rib joint on La Brea and like each other immediately. He is struck by her beauty and her laughter and she likes his earnestness and is happy to help ease his loneliness. When he finally takes her home:

'''Thank you for keeping me company, Miss Beerman,' Minas said.

''They shook hands. Branwyn thought that she had had kisses less passionate than the way that surgeon held her fingers.'' They become lovers and close friends. Nolan asks his colleagues about little Thomas, finding they are surprised he's still alive. He tells Branwyn, '''You need to take him out of that place and hold him and love him. Maybe he'll live.'''

She does, soon moving in with Nolan, Eric and a Vietnamese nanny, Ahn. Branwyn is a take-charge mother to both boys, the only adult who can keep ''force-of-nature'' Eric under some kind of control.

Tommy is sickly and prone to injuries, but is well looked after by Eric, who is strong and handsome. Both boys are mentally gifted, but Tommy seems to have an innate wisdom that perhaps began with his mother talking to him for hours even when he was a baby in a bubble. Eric and Tommy love each other and help explain the world to each other.

Nolan asks Branwyn to marry him, many times, but she always refuses. One day, her son's long absent father comes in to the store where she works. ''She hadn't seen the tall, fine-looking Elton in Tommy's whole lifetime, but he still made her heart skip and her breath come fast.''

She doesn't go with Elton again, but when she thinks of him while making love with Nolan, it makes her cry and feel like she is cheating on him.

When Eric is sick with the flu -- when the boys are in the first grade -- she stays up for three days to care for him. Then she gets sick, and dies, with Tommy sleeping next to her.

Ahn tells Tommy she had been born in a war, and she remembers running with her parents from bombs. Her family fell around her but she was pushed to run on.

'''You are like I was,' she said. 'Your mother has fallen and you must go on. You have to keep on going even though you do not know where you go. It is all we can do.'''

Nolan does not exactly fall down, but when Tommy's long absent father Elton legally takes Tommy away from the only home he's known, he is too grief-stricken to do anything about it.

Elton -- who turns out to be the epitome of the bitter, angry black man -- takes Tommy from a beautiful home and excellent school in Beverly Hills to a dumpy house and a poor public school in South Central. Before long the sensitive and delicately small Tommy manages to drop out of the school without anybody knowing and spends his days in a small, walled-in alley.

The lives of Tommy and Eric in a way take on their separate birthrights. Eric was born to every gift and they just keep coming. Success in school, in athletics, with women. Tommy was born to die but manages to barely stay alive with the help of a few people, with no schooling but the streets. His life is very hard, but he does what Ahn told him: He goes on.

Whenever he can, Tommy sinks to his knees to become part of the floor so he can see his mother standing in the shadows, watching over him. His life is terrible, but he ''wanted to remember kindnessess. He collected them the way he collected blue glass. An old white woman on Wilshire that once sat next to him and shared her sandwich, a stray dog that slept up against him on a cold night befoer he got his silver blanket, a black man who stopped to help him pull his cart out when it had fallen into a ditch -- he remembered every moment of kindness and carried them along with his cart to remember at night.''

Both boys believe they are dangers to anyone to whom they are close, largely because of the way their mother, Branwyn, died. Eric never again feels love for anyone, other than for Branwyn and Tommy. Tommy simply doesn't get the chanve to love very much. Both boys miss each other very much and still miss their mother.

Growing up perhaps only 15 or 20 miles apart, they never see each other again until they have reached college age.

Eric already has the world begging him to take its riches. Tommy has every force in the world trying to kill him, and when the two loving brothers finally get together it is a time filled with beauty and terror in which both their lives are threatened again and again.

The white man and the black man are brothers again, but it seems like the whole American nation wants to tear them apart.

''Fortunate Son'' is a thriller, an emotional roller coaster built on bars of tempered irony, Mosley not subtle, but slapping us in the fact with his beautiful, emotional parable. It is a delightful read and in its last hundred or so pages, may not be put down. It is a great novel.