It’s not a question of good and evil. It’s a question of humanity and what is done in that name.
What would you do if a stranger offered you $50,000 to rent your basement for a couple months? This is the first question Walter Mosley poses in his gripping and unsettling new novel The Man In My Basement. In it, Mosley assaults the reader with more questions about life and death, freedom and enslavement, power and powerlessness, reward and punishment, guilt and innocence. Each question is more emotionally, psychologically and philosophically intricate and resonant than the last until the reader is left with just one: How does one distinguish good from evil in a society whose nebulous moral constitution confounds any and all attempts in doing so?
Mosley does not offer his characters nor his readers any easy answers to these questions; rather, he establishes a richly textured narrative that is at once seductively simple and highly complex from which we are to elicit our own suspected definitions of the truth. The reader is compelled to eagerly push forward through the prose, to peel back the layers of Mosley’s narrative with an explorer’s keen eye and an artist’s easy touch. At the same time, we are equally compelled to constantly reach back for solid ground as each layer proves more injurious and restricting to arriving at any substantial answers as the last.
The protagonist of the story, the man whose basement is in question, is Charles Blakey, a 33-year-old slacker ambling through life with little ambition or future. Let go from his last job for stealing (a realization that seems to come as a surprise), Blakey is worried about being able to pay the mortgage on his seven- generation house, although not worried enough to rigorously seek out the employment necessary to earn the required money.
His is a muted existence, sleep-walking through card games with best friends Ricky and Clarence and spending days lounging with one of many science fiction books. Into this existence unexpectedly enters Anniston Bennet, a middle-aged white WASP with an unusual proposition to rent Blakey’s musty basement. Blakey is naturally distrustful yet simultaneously confounded and intrigued. What could such a man want with his basement?
Bennet states early on that “many things depend on circumstance” and indeed it is the collision of circumstances that sets into motion transformations of truth and life that neither man could have foreseen. Bennet’s motive for wanting to rent Blakey’s basement seems simple, albeit perplexing. He wishes to self-impose a prison sentence for his own crimes against humanity. Although apprehensive, Blakey has no other option but to accept Bennet’s suspicious financial offer.
The tales of Bennet’s crimes unfold through numerous confrontations between the two men. Each confrontation pushes the perceived social and racial boundaries separating the two closer together until what divided them becomes indistinguishable, like a picture slowly obliterated by a Spirograph activity run amuck.
Through these increasingly intensified encounters, Mosley slowly reveals parallels between Bennet and Blakey that do not seem to exist except in the abstract. Bennet wants to imprison himself as an act of penance for his freedom to manipulate the concept of humanity to suit his situational requirements. Blakey seeks to escape his guilt about his actions towards his uncle and his friends through cheap drink and women. Yet each actively constructs a prison — one physical, one psychological — through which they attempt to seek their ever- elusive forgiveness.
Their attempts are meaningfully heightened by the nuances Mosley casts upon what seem to be minor plot details. For example, Bennet chooses a lock originally “used to hold down a line of slaves in the old slaving ships” for his makeshift cell. His revealing of the lock reminds Blakey that no one in his family was ever a slave. As the days drag on, the significance of the lock becomes clearer to Blakey as he begins to understand, and subsequently suffer, the psychological weight of being in charge, of being in control, of another human being.
This is a noteworthy understanding as it feeds into the substantial subplot Mosley creates around Blakey’s efforts to reclaim his distinguished heritage, symbolized by the three African ancestral masks unearthed from his once seemingly inhabitable basement. This subplot brings Blakey into contact with an aspiring female curator who appraises the antiques from the basement, and then continues to cultivate a personal and professional relationship with Blakey.
Those familiar with Mosley’s prolific works such as the Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones detective series will not be disappointed by the story laid out in this uncharacteristic novel. Mosley has constructed an uncomfortable work of fiction that demands attention with every page turned. It is provocative, powerful, enthralling, and most notably, devoid of shallow plot constructions and trite conclusions that can decay the most impressive prose into the kind of meaningless schlock in which each detail is forgotten with each page turned.
Most impressive about Mosley’s storytelling is how he composes Bennet’s imprisonment as an opportunity to educate Blakey (and of course, the reader) on how society really works, how its issues and complexities structure each man’s perceptions of their own lives. This education throws Blakey off kilter, as each bared insight from Bennet lacerates Blakey’s psyche, leaving him staggering for meaning in a world that sometimes has no meaning beyond our guilts and indiscretions.
Both Blakey and Bennet are intricately constructed characters, with their past actions and inactions shadowing their every word, every step, every thought. Bennet is Mosley’s parabolic archetype through which we are to measure evil, with Blakey contrasted as the standard to measure what we consider to be good. Mosley positions these characters as opposites deliberately, to highlight the confining properties of such naive yin-yang categorizations in unraveling the contradictions and absurdities of what we do, or not, in the name of humanity.
And by doing so, Mosley has created an unlikely and awkward pair, clumsily dancing around each other with the steps of a fool drunk on fleeting knowledge and even more fleeting power. But this is the point; he wants to underscore our need to position ourselves as one-half of an awkward and unlikely pair, each half haphazardly jockeying for a one up’ to prove themselves more worthy than the other. We do this universally, and usually without discretion, even though our common sense well informs us, as does Anniston Bennet, that “there’s more to the world than one plus one.”