Regular fans of Walter Mosley's fiction—and they are legion—may at initial contact be shocked by The Man in My Basement. The novel has none of the characters Mosley has created before (like Easy Rawlins or Fearless Jones), is not set in Los Angeles (as are most of his earlier works, such as the popular 1990 novel Devil in a Blue Dress), and is not a mystery—at least not in the ordinary sense of that genre. The novel does, however, have several of Mosley's trademark features: It is gripping and extremely well written, and it asks readers to think about its subjects. Mosley has always had this philosophical bent (note the name of his protagonist Socrates Fortlow in several earlier story collections, like the 1999 book Walkin’ the Dog), and The Man in My Basementmines that serious vein, raising questions of power, justice, and morality that will not be answered soon in readers’ minds.
Charles Blakey is not a promising fictional hero. At thirty three, he has no job, no chance for a job, no money, a mortgage on his house, and numerous other bills. As his sometime friend Big Clarance describes him, in an occasional burst of street language, “Unemployed, drunk loudmouth is what you is.” Blakey lives alone in his roomy childhood home in what he tells readers is a secluded colored neighborhood of Sag Harbor, Long Island, and his life has become increasingly lonely and isolated since he lost his job as a bank teller nine months before and his last girlfriend soon after that. When he asks his friend Lainie, an officer at the bank, she tells him that he has been blacklisted from other jobs because of the petty thefts he committed while he worked at the bank. As usual, Blakey lies and denies the crimes. This antihero with few redeeming qualities appears to have hit bottom, headed apparently for his own end.
His life changes radically when Anniston Bennet shows up at his door and asks to rent Blakey's empty cellar. The rich white man knows everything about Blakey, including the crucial fact that he needs money, and offers him $50,000 to stay in his basement for sixty-five days. Blakey initially refuses but then accepts the offer, and his life begins to change almost at once. What Bennet wants, it turns out, is to be caged in a nine-foot steel cell which Blakey assembles and secures, after Bennet enters it, with an ancient lock used on slaving ships that the prisoner provides. Blakey brings him his meals but otherwise leaves the eccentric white man alone to read and write and think. “This is my prison,” he tells Blakey. “And you are my warden and my guard.” Bennet describes himself to Blakey vaguely as a criminal paying for his crimes against humanity, but his actions are going to impact his jailer as profoundly as himself.
Meanwhile, Blakey's life has already changed in significant ways. In cleaning out his house in preparation for the arrival of his “guest,” he unloads boxes of family heirlooms on Narciss Gully, an antiques dealer who is interested in black history and particularly in some of the items that Blakey wants to sell. Blakey can trace his family back generations to the first indentured servants (not slaves) who earned their freedom soon after their arrival in this area of New York in the eighteenth century. His house has been in the family for generations and contains what to Narciss are treasures—like the three ivory “passport masks” which she reports were used for identification and go all the way back to tribal Africa. So Blakey is rediscovering his own essential black history, its roots growing back into the time of slavery—at the same time that he is holding a rich white man in a cage in his basement. Bennet has made his money in financial “reclamations,” he tells Blakey, but it sounds more like “reparations” are at work here, or better, perhaps, that it will be Blakey who is finally being ’reclaimed.’
What happens is that Blakey turns into a true jailer. In trying to uncover the concrete reasons for Bennet's...
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