Ex-con Socrates Fortlow, the conscience of South Central Los Angeles (Walkin’ the Dog, 1999, etc.), returns for another dozen interlinked adventures, most of them revolving around dialogues on tough or taboo subjects.
Years after he was released from prison for rape and homicide, Socrates has a new project: the Big Nickel, a community center whose premises he cleverly acquires in the opening story. Every week, the Thursday Night Thinkers’ Meeting convenes. During the meeting members discuss “the world and what would be the right thing to do.” Since the Thursday night group includes gambler Billy Psalms, murderer Ronald Zeal, his attorney Cassie Wheaton, singer Marianne Lodz, her silent friend Luna Barnet, carpenter Antonio Peron, wealthy junk man Chaim Zetel and karate master Wan Tai, lively disagreements are guaranteed, especially when the discussion turns, as it often does, to race. While Socrates and his friends celebrate the power of arguments in their safe space to produce deeper insights, events from outside keep intruding. A much younger member of the group confesses her love to Socrates. He finds an unexpected source of funding that helps him dramatically expand his outreach. His adoptive son Darryl is shot. The LAPD, suspicious of the Big Nickel, uses an informant to infiltrate the group. A baseless search of the premises leads Socrates to threaten Capt. Telford Winegarten, of the Anti-gang Tactical Division, with a lawsuit. Socrates and Billy Psalms, on a trip to San Francisco, get arrested for Driving While Black. And in the climactic story, Socrates once more stands trial for murder.
The debates meant to be the volume’s backbone are heartfelt dramatizations of familiar positions, and the Big Nickel’s achievements seem a little utopian. The main attraction, as usual, is Socrates, whose manful attempts to live out his dialectic on the mean streets of Watts make him a hero worthy of his namesake.