The right mistake is a book unlike any other that I’ll be reviewing here. It’s a brutal, raw, and ultimately uplifting tale set in South Central LA. Mosley is best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, set in Watts during the 1950s, and he doesn’t shy away from difficult themes. The right mistake is no exception in its depiction of a group of people living in a neighborhood wracked with violent crime, police brutality, and general hopelessness coming together and trying to make a difference.
Brief plot description
The right mistake follows Socrates Fortlow, ex-con and “street philosopher” as he organizes a group that comes to be known as “the Thinkers”, individuals from disparate ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds who meet to discuss the problems in their community and how to deal with them.
So how is it?
It’s amazing. Socrates Fortlow was featured in two previous short-story collections by Mosely, Always outnumbered, always outgunned and Walkin’ the dog. I haven’t read either of those, so this was my first introduction to the character. Socrates is an ex-con, having spent 27 years in prison for murder and rape before becoming a street philosopher and attempting to improve his community. Mosely doesn’t shy away from Fortlow’s past, nor any of the day-to-day struggles of inner city life, and the message of the novel is all the stronger for it.
It’s hard to talk about this book without giving too much away. It’s an intimate book, focused on Socrates and his friends and acquaintances as they struggle with a system that is stacked against them. He portrays his characters, from police officers to rabbis to gang members with a sympathetic tone, never reducing them to caricatures. The characters feel like real people, and even the Thinkers have recurring interpersonal conflicts and pwoer struggles. The optimistic tone of the plot would make it easy to gloss over these, to paint the Thinkers as enlightened saviors of a troubled community. Instead, Mosely presents well-rounded characters who are just everyday folks, doing their best. It’s a story of redemption that doesn’t provide easy solutions to complex problems.
The plot is revealed through a series of disjointed chapters. It’s not exactly a short story collection, but it’s not quite a traditional novel either. It’s somewhere in between, something along the lines of a serialized novel like Yoshikawa Eiji’s Musashi or any of the great 19th century adventure epics. Some readers may find this jarring, as there are occasional jumps and disconnects.
The right mistake, like most of Mosley’s work, features frank discussions of race, violence, and any other “social problem” you could think of. He handles these issues gracefully, presenting things as they are and proposing a solution that is, on its surface, simple, but proves to be more complex and have a bigger impact than any of the characters expected.
A unique, interesting protagonist
Confronts real-life issues directly and openly
Manages to portray urban poverty honestly but without being depressing
Establishes a background for one of the best SF series of all time
Aside from Socrates, the minor characters lack in-depth characterization (with the number of characters in this book, to do otherwise would not be possible without increasing the length significantly)
A sympathetic protagonist who is an admitted rapist and murderer can be somewhat offputting
Chapters are mostly self contained which makes for a novel that doesn’t easily “flow” from one scene to another
I have recommended this book several times. It’s great for readers who are interested in social issues, and is a good book to recommend to peopole who prefer nonfiction. It’s also perfect for readers looking for an inspirational story.
There are a couple of things that should be considered when recommending it. The dialogue is largely written in phonetic AAVE, which might make it difficult to read for some patrons. As mentioned in “weaknesses” above, a major theme of the book is accepting responsibility, and it features some very explicit depictions of Socrates’s previous crimes. This isn’t a book for the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon or Mitford, NC.
Unfortunately, because of the above issue, I haven’t recommended this book recently. The last time I recommended it was before I was keeping track of who I was recommending books to and what they thought, so I can’t provide that information here.