"The Man in My Basement "
(reviewed by Hagen Baye APR 23, 2004)
Charles Blakey, the principal character in Walter Mosley's fascinating new novel, The Man in my Basement, is a 33-year-old unemployed black man, living alone in a three-story 200-year-old house in Sag Harbor, NY, which his family has owned for at least seven generations. His ancestors, arriving perhaps as early as 1742, are among the original settlers of the long-standing black community that established itself in eastern Long Island. The Blakey's, Charles's father's people, came over as indentured servants who earned their freedom. On his mother's side, the Dodd's are said to have come over directly from Africa as free people. It is a matter of great pride that they were never anyone's slaves.
Charles Blakey is a disgrace to his family's name. He is on the verge of losing the ancestral house and becoming homeless due to his inability to keep up with his mortgage payments. His predicament stems from having been fired from his job at a local bank because of "petty embezzlement." His former employer, feeling personally betrayed by Charles, gets him blacklisted from getting any other work in his small town. He can't even get a construction job from a fellow whose grandfather's first job came through Blakey's family and despite two of the fellow's siblings having been delivered by Charles's grandmother. The good will of his respected family did not accrue to his benefit, it is as if he has no connection with his forebears.
Though he often feels prosecuted for no reason and is prone to blame others for his faults, Mosley makes it clear that Charles is his own worse enemy. He completed three years of college and dropped out even though he had passing grades. He loves to drink and uses it as an escape from the "real world" he fears. He likes to lock himself in his room and waste away his time reading comics and playing with himself.
As the book opens, a strange "small, bald-headed white man" with penetrating blue eyes, who says his name is Anniston Bennet, comes to Blakey's door and tells Charles he wants to rent his basement for the summer. Charles refuses this unexpected, unsolicited request largely due to being uncomfortable with Bennet's air of superiority.
However, at that moment Charles has exactly $15.76 to his name. This amount is soon reduced to pennies. His confidence that his Aunt Peaches will bail him out to preserve the family home from foreclosure proves to be misplaced. Peaches, long exasperated with Charles, tells him that the house is probably better off in someone else's ownership.
With no prospect for a job or money, other than the meager $24 he pathetically scrounges up selling the empty beer bottles strewn all over the house and piled in the basement, Charles calls Anniston Bennet and they close the deal. Bennet wants to rent the basement starting that July 1 for 65 days at the generous rate of $750 a day, plus expenses. Bennet wants Charles to outfit the space in accordance with specifications and with the furnishings and accessories Bennet is to provide and will have delivered prior to his arrival. During Bennet's stay, Charles is to also provide food and clean up, as Bennet wishs to remain in the basement the entire time without contact with any one other than Blakey.
While the $8,500 good faith deposit paid on the spot permitts Charles to cure his mortgage arrears and to buy clothes, food, books, booze and other items, necessities and otherwise, Blakey is nevertheless afraid of Anniston Bennet and apprehensive about giving Bennet access to his house. He is unsure of how he was going to get Bennet out at the end of the scheduled term of his stay.
Nevertheless, Blakey is smart enough to understand his limited choices and goes about the business of cleaning out the basement in preparation for Bennet's stay. Unexpectedly, the mounds and mounds of old stuff stored down there over the years by previous generations of his family--old dolls, tools, clothes, furniture, diaries, paintings and the like--turns out to be items of particular historic value, eventually estimated to be worth as much as $80,000 to collectors. Lucky for Charles, a friend who helped him clean the basement had an inkling of the stuffs' worth and dissuaded Charles from just trashing it and referrs him to an antique dealer, Narciss Gully, who assists Charles to appreciate the significance of his family's heirlooms.
In the meantime, Anniston Bennet's furnishings arrive and principal among them--in addition to a veritable collection of books which constitute the classics of human writing-- are boxes containing pieces that, once assembled by Charles, results in a 9 foot cube cage, reminiscent of a confessional, within which Bennet is to be confined during his stay.
The prime purpose of Bennet's stay, as it turns out, is precisely penitential in nature. Bennet's stay is not intended to be a vacation but punishment for the horrible crimes he reveals bit by bit to Charles. These evil deeds were committed during the course of Bennet's "occupation" within the field of "reclamation," where he sought out sources of wealth all over the world and devised methods to procure it. Bennet aims to atone for the atrocities he had a hand in while in the pursuit of wealth.
The heart of Mosley's intriguing book is the unusual dialogue and interaction between Anniston Bennet and Charles Blakey whenever Charles goes to the basement to feed and tend to Anniston. At first, Charles is tentative and nervous about the power Anniston may have over him, but as the stay progresses Charles assumes the role of warden and devises his own set of rules which govern the terms of Bennet's continued stay and of any punishment deemed necessary, principally the deprivation of light, food and water.
As Bennet reveals to Charles more about the horrible things he has done--including the murder of children, trading in body parts, and more -- Bennet's tales frighten, disgust and fascinate Charles Blakey. More and more empowered, Charles gets Bennet to disclose the secrets about his origins. It's here where we see why he chose Blakey as his confessor, a fine twist within this story.
Simultaneous with his dealings with Bennet, Charles spends time upstairs studying the artifacts he had cleared out of the basement, reflecting upon what Narciss Gully has told him about his ancestors, the story about his own origins. Charles is particularly impressed by the ivory masks that Gully thinks belonged to African royalty. In sum, he realizes that the richness of his background is the complete opposite to Bennet's ancestral void. At one point, Charles tells Bennet "you're really nothing."
On the other hand, Bennet seeks to do penance, to be punished for his sins/crimes, his evil deeds, but is unable to accept personal responsibility for them. He justifies his actions with the rationale that he has acted in accordance with "the way of the world," that if he did not do what he did, someone else would have done the horrendous act anyway. His search for redemption could not be achieved as he could not admit that his actions were wrong and without justification. Bennet never accepts the possibility of rejecting the so-called "way of the world."
This is an intriguing, yet perplexing book. It should be the subject of much discussion and debate. Was Bennet a real person, or a symbol of evil or of what rootlessness and ruthlessness produces? Or, of how rootlessness produces ruthlessness? A score of questions are raised by Mosley's book
The Man in My Basement is a departure from Mosley's previous body of work, which have been predominately crime fiction, featuring such characters as Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones, and a couple of science fiction novels. Man appears to be the fictional counterpart of sorts to his non-fiction work of a year ago, What Next: A Memoir toward World Peace. In What Next, Mosley decries the evils of global capitalism and pleads for ordinary people to mobilize to foster peace. In Man, Bennet is a captive of capitalism and its idolizing of profits over people, while Charles Blakey, though a failure at first, achieves redemption by his embrace of his ancestors and the human values they represent.
- Amazon readers rating: from 73 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Man in My Basement at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- R.L.'s Dream (1995)
- Blue Light (1998)
- Futureland (2001)
- The Man in My Basement (2004)
- 47 (2005)
- The Wave (2006)
- Fortunate Son (2006)
- Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel (2006)
- Diablerie (2007)
- The Tempest Tales (2008)
- The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (2010)
- Parishioner (2012)
Easy Rawlins Mysteries:
- Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)
- A Red Death (1991)
- White Butterfly (1992)
- Black Betty (1994)
- A Little Yellow Dog (1996)
- Gone Fishin' (1997)
- Bad Boy Brawly Brown (July 2002)
- Six Easy Pieces: Stories (2003)
- Little Scarlet (2004)
- Cinnamon Kiss (2005)
- Blonde Faith (2007)
- Little Green (May 2013)
Socrates Fortlow novels:
- Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1998)
- Walkin'the Dog (1999)
- The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow (2008)
Paris Minton and Fearless Jones Mysteries:
Leonid McGill, P.I. series:
- The Long Hill (2009)
- Known to Evil (2010)
- When the Thrill is Gone (2011)
- All I Did Was Shoot My Man (2012)
Crosstown to Oblivion:
- Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History (2000)
- What Next: An African American Initiative Toward World Peace (2003)
- This Year You Write Your Novel (2007)
Movies from books:
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- Official website for Walter Mosley
- Wikipedia page on Walter Mosley
- PopMatters review of The Man in My Basement
- The New York Times review of The Man in My Basement
- Salon.com review of The Man in My Basement
More reviews of Walter Mosley's books:
- MostlyFiction.com review of Futureland
- MostlyFiction.com review of Easy Rawlins series
- MostlyFiction.com review of Socrates Fortlow series
- MostlyFiction.com review of Paris Minton/Fearless Jones series
- MostlyFiction.com review of Workin' on the Chain Gang
- MostlyFiction.com review of When the Thrill is Gone (Leonid McGill series)
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About the Author:
Walter Mosley, born in 1952, grew up in Los Angeles and has been at various times in his life a potter, a computer programmer, and a poet.
His books have been translated into twenty languages. Devil in a Blue Dress received the 1990 Shamus Award for "Best First P.I. Novel" from the Private Eye Writers of America and was also made into a movie starring Denzel Washington. His collection of short stories featuring Socrates Fortlow, a 60 year-old philosophical ex-convict, in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was also latered released as a movie.
He has been the president of the Mystery Writers of America and a member of the executive board of the PEN American Center and Founder of its Open Book Committee and on the board of directors of the National Book Awards. In 2002, Walter Mosley won a Grammy for "Best Liner Notes" for a Richard Pryor box set.
Mosley lives in New York City.