In Walter Mosley's short story "Haunted," a publisher has sent a rejection letter to a dead man, about whom he complains, "He wrote all that genre stuff and tried to pretend it was literary." It's impossible to read this line as anything other than Mosley's wink at the reader: being seen as less than true artists is the bane of good writers known primarily for their genre fiction. If Mosley, best known for his beloved Easy Rawlins crime novels, feels undervalued, The Awkward Black Man, the charged, fleet and often funny 17-story collection in which "Haunted" appears, may redress the misunderstanding.
The Awkward Black Man features men who are, as Rufus Coombs, the naive and sweet-natured narrator of "Pet Fly," would put it, "one shade or other of brown." In "Pet Fly," Rufus, who is stuck working in a mail room at an insurance company despite having a political science degree, is accused of sexual harassment after he leaves gifts for a female colleague. In "Between Storms," a man's paranoia following Hurricane Laura compels him to skip work and hole up in his Manhattan apartment; his self-isolation becomes a news story, which leads to his misbegotten valorization as "a people's hero who was refusing to take one more step before the other side made changes."
Fifty-plus books into his career, Mosley hasn't run out of inspired plots, and his interest in social issues remains acute, although he editorializes with the lightest of touches. Leave it to a master of the crime novel like Mosley to give several stories a shocking final twist: a happy ending. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer