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Onyx reviews: Fortunate Son by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley is known mostly for gritty crime novels featuring protagonist Easy Rawlins. Occasionally, he ventures in a different direction, as with The Man in My Basement two years ago. Fortunate Son is another experiment, part parable, part fantasy and part cautionary tale.

It's interesting how often the expression "Fortunate Son" is used ironically. Creedence Clearwater Revival's song of that name protested the fact that those sent to Vietnam weren't the sons of millionaires or senators. More recently it was the title of a controversial presidential biography.

It's up to readers to decide to which of two characters Mosley refers. Tommy Beerman arrives in the world with none of the advantages of the wealthy. He's born prematurely-with a hole in his lung-to Branwyn, a poor African American single mother. Observing the baby's deteriorating condition, surgeon Minas Nolan urges her to remove Tommy from his bubble incubator. He believes the boy will perish without human contact. Nolan opens his home to her during Tommy's recuperation and she ends up staying six years. Nolan repeatedly asks Branwyn to marry him. She always refuses.

Nolan has a son of his own, Eric, who apparently has everything going for him-except that his mother died giving birth to him. Nolan becomes a father to Tommy and Branwyn mothers Eric until she falls sick and dies. This tightly knit, unconventional family, half white and half black, is torn apart in the aftermath. Tommy's absentee father-ironically named Trueblood-claims him, propelling him into a life of neglect and poverty.

Eric sails through childhood and adolescence. He's the best there is at everything he attempts. Girls-and, later, women-swoon in his presence, desperate to spend a few blissful hours in his bed. Even the clouds are on his side, parting at just the right moment to allow a sunbeam to shine in his opponent's eyes during an important tennis match.

He becomes a father at sixteen. The mother, Christie, is another of his conquests, a young woman who abandons her fiancÚ to be with Eric regardless of her better judgment. Women don't love Eric; they simply need to be with him. His accomplishments notwithstanding, Eric doesn't understand what love or happiness mean. He sucked the life out of his mother being born, and also blames himself for Branwyn's death. His Vietnamese nanny, Ahn, suggests that his successes always come at the expense of someone else. She believes he is cursed.

In contrast, Tommy is frequently sick or injured, neglected, mistreated, and habitually alone. Even when he has a home of sorts with violence-prone Elton Trueblood and his unfaithful girlfriend, Tommy prefers hanging out in a hidden alley. He talks to his deceased mother and wonders what Eric's life is like. The people he meets during his formative years are as lost and troubled as he is and often come to tragic ends, yet he never complains about the hand fate has dealt him.

He sells drugs to survive, has frequent run-ins with the police, and is shot, raped and beaten more times than he can recall. With no sense of irony, he adopts the nickname Lucky. In spite of what Minas Nolan believed, Tommy thrives-after a fashion-without human contact in his bubble world. On the one occasion when he tries to reach out to his foster family, Ahn tells him not to call back. She doesn't understand his situation and thinks he is safer away from Eric.

Mosley adopts the voice of a parable teller, dispassionately recounting Eric and Tommy's lives. This is what happened to them, this is how they felt, this is what they thought. As he told an interviewer recently, "I believe that writing should be a clear pane of glass. There's a story on the other side of the glass and you shouldn't be distracted by the lens."

Despite their differences, Eric and Tommy formed an intense bond during their six years together. Eventually their lives converge again. Through a series of challenges, tragedies and adventures, they rediscover each other. The story has a meandering simplicity that belies its more subtle intent. How can someone to whom things come so easily be unhappy and distrustful of life while a boy who ends up living on the streets, outside of conventional society, remain upbeat and hopeful? Which of them is truly fortunate?

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