Bill Clinton's favourite author finally gets Mat Coward's vote
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley

Serpent's Tail, pounds 11.99

You wouldn't think writing about working-class black men was a likely route to success in contemporary America, but Walter Mosley has become a sort of Establishment-ordained cult, lionised by the in-crowd. Under the rules of Clinton-era liberalism, it is necessary to adore one writer merely for being black, while, at the same time, ensuring that Death Row is kept packed with voteless, jobless black men.

Mosley's Easy Rawlins novels have perhaps been overpraised, but having read Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (a misleading title designed to hide the fact that this is a collection of short stories), I now accept the official verdict: Mosley is a great and important writer. Socrates Fortlow is an ageing ex-convict living in a Los Angeles ghetto. Having served 27 years for murder, he now tries to do good to "ease" - not erase -the "long evil life that he'd lived". Daringly, unusually, the crime for which Socrates went down is one he did commit, and for which neither he nor Mosley offer any excuse.

These are little moral tales, fables almost, in which Socrates reconciles warring spouses, and tries to prevent a youngster following his own bitter path, because "a boy tryin' deserves a chance". This is traditional Americana, plain-spoken, written with a poet's precision, and astonishingly moving.

Strikingly funny, too; as a crime writer, Mosley is used to employing sparky, joky dialogue to carry tragic stories. In style and subject, his work is in some ways reminiscent of that other great US literary invention, the adult comic strip. With his confessional tone and his eye for vivid detail, he can sketch characters, communities, even philosophies, without sacrificing veracity or pithiness.

If Always Outnumbered were a novel in the mainstream European tradition, it would be miserablist. Written from above by a sympathetic observer, it would proffer despair as the rational response to injustice. But Mosley, though no stark realist, allows his characters to behave realistically. He acknowledges it is in the nature of human beings to maintain the pursuit of happiness, no matter how hopeless the chase.

Socrates lives in a neighbourhood where it is not uncommon for children to be shot dead by other children; medicines must be bought on the black market as "the clinic won't let them kinda drugs out in Watts." He "either committed a crime or had a crime done to me every day I was in jail. Once you go to prison you belong there". Yet, on his first visit to the seaside, he finds it "harsh and beautiful the way he'd always known life to be".

These are not thrillers, yet these textually simple life-dramas of a man trying to be "a man" create unputdownable tension. Illuminating, charming and shocking, relying on fidelity of characterisation rather than histrionics, they remind us that the only truth the US has ever held to be self-evident is the efficacy of genocide. I doubt you'll read another book this year that will imprint itself on your memory like this one.

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