by Grant Cousineau
“I was foolish enough to believe that I could take his money and keep my freedom.”
The Man in My Basement is rife with this concept of self-salvation, that we can somehow map our own paths to redemption whether we deserve it or not.
But before Mosely’s provocative novel really digs into this idea, his story opens with a straightforward proposition. Anniston Bennet – an unassuming, wealthy, white man – appears on the doorstep of a large home in a secluded, colored neighborhood in Long Island. The house is owned by thirty-three-year-old Charles Blakey, a seventh-generation descendant of free black Americans. Bennet offers him nearly $50,000 to rent his basement. Though Blakey’s life is coming apart at the seams, he refuses, but not before accepting Bennet’s card.
As a broke, unemployed, compulsive liar with no living family, Blakey has all but backed himself into a corner. After rumors that he stole money from the bank he worked at, he’s since been blackballed by every business in town. Even construction crews won’t touch him, so he learns to make his meals (and booze) stretch. In due time, he runs out of options and calls to take Bennet up on his offer, but there’s a catch: Bennet intends to imprison himself in Blakey’s basement. For two months.
Bennet sends the materials for a stand-up, lattice metalwork cell to Blakey’s house, which he is to erect in the basement. Then, before Bennet locks himself inside, he gives Blakey instructions for feeding him, waste disposal, and everything he needs to know to essentially serve as Bennet’s full-time warden. Oh, and during these two months, Blakey will be the only person to know of Bennet’s whereabouts, and the sole person holding the key to the padlock.
This riveting yet mysterious situation leaves Blakey restless, worried someone might stumble across the jailed white man in his cellar. But he soon learns that Bennet may actually deserve this self-sentence, admitting to having spent his life as one of the most powerful criminals in the world, responsible for pain, suffering, and even death, yet so fully behind-the-scenes that he’s never been so much as a footnote or coffee stain in the annals of history.
“I am a good citizen and the worst demon,” he confesses.
In justifying his life, he says: “More often than not men make the decisions that lead to their own deaths. They delegate, hate, stay when all the signs say go. Mostly they’re unwilling to make a deal. And they’re almost all forgotten. No better remembered than a cockroach who succumbs to a poison that you set down under the pantry six months before.”
Mosley – best known for his hard-boiled Easy Rawlins mystery novels – presents The Man in My Basement as a parable through which we might reconsider our assumptions about liars, beggars, and thieves, as well as our first impressions of clean-cut, well-suited men with firm handshakes and stock-photo smiles.
Blakey and Bennet’s situation is reminiscent of “The One and Only Ivan” or “Ishmael,” except instead of Socratic conversations with caged gorillas, here we have two men of polar-opposite backgrounds and worldviews. It all becomes a sort of psychological game between the two, with turns taken and rules to follow. Mosley ushers this setup into powerfully affecting and philosophically intricate storytelling.
And yet, the novel is very much a classic Mosley page-turner – absolutely unputdownable. The dialogue is razor sharp and the narration hypnotic. This story is clean from the first to the last word, though there are no easy answers to be found. Redemption, Mosley seems to suggest, is in both the eye of the beholder and of the beholden. He asks: Are we ever forgiven if we cannot first forgive ourselves?
Walter Mosley is the author of more than 43 critically acclaimed books. He is the winner of numerous awards, including an O. Henry Award, a Grammy and PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He will be at the KI Convention Center Saturday, April 27 at 7:00pm. Make sure to secure your tickets (General Admission is FREE; priority seating is $30).