Man in My Basement (Mosley)

The Man in My Basement
Walter Mosley, 2004
Little, Brown & Co.
272 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316159319

Charles Blakey is a young black man whose life is slowly crumbling. His parents are dead, he can't find a job, he drinks too much, and his friends have begun to desert him.

Worst of all, he's fallen behind on the mortgage payments for the beautiful home that's belonged to his family for generations.

When a stranger offers him $50,000 in cash to rent out his basement for the summer, Charles needs the money too badly to say no. He knows that the stranger must want something more than a basement view.

Sure enough, he has a very particular—and bizarre—set of requirements, and Charles tries to satisfy him without getting lured into the strangeness.

But he sees an opportunity to understand secrets of the white world, and his summer with a man in his basement turns into a journey into inconceivable worlds of power and manipulation, and unimagined realms of humanity.

Richly textured and compelling, The Man in My Basement is a new literary pinnacle from an acknowledged American master. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—January 12, 1952
Where—Los Angeles, California, USA
Education—B.A., Johnson State College
Awards—Mystery Writers Grand Master; Shamus Award, Private Eye Writers of America; Grammy Award for Best Album Notes
Currently—lives in New York City

When President Bill Clinton announced that Walter Mosley was one of his favorite writers, Black Betty (1994), Mosley's third detective novel featuring African American P.I. Easy Rawlins, soared up the bestseller lists. It's little wonder Clinton is a fan: Mosley's writing, an edgy, atmospheric blend of literary and pulp fiction, is like nobody else's. Some of his books are detective fiction, some are sci-fi, and all defy easy categorization.

Mosley was born in Los Angeles, traveled east to college, and found his way into writing fiction by way of working as a computer programmer, caterer, and potter. His first "Easy Rawlins" book, Gone Fishin' didn't find a publisher, but the next, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) most certainly did—and the world was introduced to a startlingly different P.I.

Part of the success of the Easy Rawlins series is Mosley's gift for character development. Easy, who stumbles into detective work after being laid off by the aircraft industry, ages in real time in the novels, marries, and experiences believable financial troubles and successes. In addition, Mosley's ability to evoke atmosphere—the dangers and complexities of life in the toughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles—truly shines. His treatment of historic detail (the Rawlins books take place in Los Angeles from the 1940s to the mid-1960s) is impeccable, his dialogue fine-tuned and dead-on.

In 2002, Mosley introduced a new series featuring Fearless Jones, an Army vet with a rigid moral compass, and his friend, a used-bookstore owner named Paris Minton. The series is set in the black neighborhoods of 1950s L.A. and captures the racial climate of the times. Mosley himself summed up the first book, 2002's Fearless Jones, as "comic noir with a fringe of social realism."

Despite the success of his bestselling crime series, Mosley is a writer who resolutely resists pigeonholing. He regularly pens literary fiction, short stories, essays, and sci-fi novels, and he has made bold forays into erotica, YA fiction, and political polemic. "I didn't start off being a mystery writer," he said in an interview with NPR. "There's many things that I am." Fans of this talented, genre-bending author could not agree more!

From a 2004 Barnes & Noble interview:

• Mosley is an avid potter in his spare time.

• He was a computer programmer for 15 years before publishing his first book. He is an avid collector of comic books. And ahe believes that war is rarely the answer, especially not for its innocent victims.

When asked what book most influenced his career as a writer, here is what he said:

The Stranger by Albert Camus probably had the greatest impact on me. I suppose that's because it was a novel about ideas in a very concrete and sensual world. This to me is the most difficult stretch for a writer—to talk about the mind and spirit while using the most pedestrian props. Also the hero is not an attractive personality. He's just a guy, a little removed, who comes to heroism without anyone really knowing it. This makes him more like an average Joe rather than someone beyond our reach or range.

(Bio and interview from Barnes & Noble .)

Book Reviews
In this successful and intriguing departure from his usual work, Mr. Mosley creates a substantial subplot about heritage and history.... In the end this audacious novel is about facing up to such brutal realities. But it is also about seeking refuge.
Janet Maslin - New York Times

Despite the heavy themes, the book never bogs down, and Mosley keeps the action flowing with his direct, colloquial writing.
USA Today

Even in his genre fiction, which includes mysteries and science fiction, Mosley has not been content simply to spin an engrossing action story but has sought to explore larger themes as well. In this stand-alone literary tale, themes are in the forefront as Mosley abandons action in favor of a volatile, sometimes unspoken dialogue between Charles Blakey and Anniston Bennet. Blakey, descended from a line of free blacks reaching back into 17th-century America, lives alone in the big family house in Sag Harbor. Bennet is a mysterious white man who approaches Blakey with a strange proposition—to be locked up in Blakey's basement—that Blakey comes to accept only reluctantly and with reservations. The magnitude of Bennet's wealth, power and influence becomes apparent gradually, and his quest for punishment and, perhaps, redemption, proves unsettling—to the reader as well as to Blakey, who finds himself trying to understand Bennet as well as trying to recast his own relatively purposeless life. The shifting power relationship between Bennet and Blakey works nicely, and it is fitting that Blakey's thoughts find expression more in physicality than in contemplation; his involvements with earthy, sensual Bethany and racially proud, sophisticated and educated Narciss reflect differing possibilities. The novel, written in adorned prose that allows the ideas to breathe, will hold readers rapt; it is Mosley's most philosophical novel to date, as he explores guilt, punishment, responsibility and redemption as individual and as social constructs. While it will be difficult for this novel to achieve the kind of audience Mosley's genre fiction does, the author again demonstrates his superior ability to tackle virtually any prose form, and he is to be applauded for creating a rarity, an engaging novel of ideas.
Publishers Weekly

This is a stand-alone literary novel from Mosley, who is best-known for his detective fiction. He arranges character and plot development so that Charles Blakey, a purposeless, unemployed, African American, accepts payment to let the mysterious Anniston Bennet spend two months imprisoned in his basement—and thus the stage is set for a sequence of philosophical dialogs and debates that influence and change the path of Charles's life. The conversations veer around topics like the dynamics of power, the need for redemption through punishment, and the nature of guilt. To fans of Easy Rawlins, Socrates Fortlow, and Fearless Jones, this will be a departure, but it is recommended as demand warrants. —Kristen L. Smith, Loras College Library, Dubuque, IA
Library Journal

As in many of Mosley's books, the story begins with a knock on the door: Anniston Bennet, a wealthy white man with mysterious motives, wants to rent Blakey's sizable basement. But while there is mystery here, fine, provocative writing from the prolific Mosley, whose gifts extend well beyond his excellent mysteries. —Keir Graff

In Mosley's boldly understated fable, an unemployed African-American agrees to rent space in his basement to a wealthy white businessman for two months. Except for living in New York's Harbor district, Charles Blakey might be a double for the denizens of Mosley's Watts (Six Easy Pieces, 2003, etc.). He's got no wife, no current girlfriend, few friends—though those few are ancient and loyal—and no work since he was fired from his job as a bankteller for petty embezzling. Worse still, he's about to lose the house his family's lived in for seven generations because he can't make payments on the mortgage he's taken out to tide him over. But when Greenwich reclamation expert Anniston Bennet approaches him with a request to let his basement for the summer, Charles isn't even tempted—until his other feeble sources of income dry up and his back is to the wall. It turns out that Bennet is offering a fabulous sum, nearly $50,000, for his stay; that he's picked Charles out especially as his host after doing a great deal of research; and that in cleaning out the basement to make it ready for him, Charles, who according to antique dealer Narciss Gully has turned up family heirlooms worth just as much as Bennet promises, doesn't really need his money anymore. By this time, however, he's become entranced by the combination of mastery and submission the white man is offering him, and the two enter into a relationship that becomes steadily more lacerating for them both. Fans of Mosley's nonfiction (Workin' on the Chain Gang, 1997, etc.) will know from the beginning what Bennet wants from Charles. Even given the resulting lack of suspense and a story that falls off sharply by the end, this slender parable is Mosley's most provocative and impassioned novel yet.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Man in My Basement:

1. What has happened to Charles Blakey that he finds himself down on his luck?

2. Based on careful research, Anniston Bennet chooses Charles—why? And what prompts Charles to accept the offer, even though, as it turns out, he doesn't really need the money?

3. In what way does the power relationship shift between the two men?

4. Talk about the two men's conversations with one another: how do they challenge each other...and what philosophical issues are at stake?

5. What do you learn about Bennet? Do you find him worthy of redemption? Is he a believable character—or more of an allegorical figure, standing in for evil incarnate?

6. How, eventually, is Blakey transformed by the end of the book?

7. This book revolves around convesations and ideas rather than plot. Did you find it engrossing, or was it difficult to get through, dense and uninteresting?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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