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The Man in My Basement by Walter Mosley

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

Mosley is best known for his Easy Rawlins mystery novels, but he quit writing these a few years ago.  Since then, he has collected some essays and tried his hand at science fiction, but he never strays too far from his informed obsession, the conundrum of race in America. His take on race is not predictable or politically correct, but it is challenging, to both black and white.

The first person narrator is Charles Blakey, a 33-year-old black man who lives alone on his inherited family house on Long Island.  He is unable to hold a job, unable to tell the truth, unable to forge many lasting friendships. He drinks too much and disses his card-playing buddies, rarely answers his phone, and represents the slow generational decline of a group of never-enslaved blacks who populated Long Island since its days as an agricultural powerhouse.  He's also in deep trouble.
The house cannot be re-financed again, and he stands to lose it unless he comes up with thousands of dollars. When he is first introduced, he has just won some cash at poker.  His cash on hand has risen to over fifteen dollars, enough to buy another bottle.

One day, he has a strange visitor, a white man named Anniston Bennet, who makes Blakey a strange offer. Bennet wants to rent his basement and is prepared to give Blakey a lot of cash to do so.  Blakey resists, but soon realizes he has no other option to save his house. Here's where the story gets creepy.  Bennet wants to build a cage, a holding cell in the basement, and he wants to inhabit this cage all summer, with Blakey as his warden. Bennet hints at some dastardly deeds he has committed,
and Blakey is dimly aware that Bennet's incarceration is an attempt at atonement and expiation.

This is a classic racial role reversal, and Blakey wonders if Bennet has used and abused black people in the past. Blakey knows that he should not allow himself to be drawn into this dangerous game, but he cannot resist.  Not only is he saving his house, but he is also offered a chance that most black people never get, to hold the power of life and death over a white person.  Mosley is too perceptive a novelist to make this power an act of liberation.  It comes at a cost to Blakey's soul, a cost all the more apparent as their curious relationship becomes increasingly entangled.

Blakey's journey is reminiscent of the famous psychology experiment where some subjects are designated prisoners and others are designated guards.  Both groups fall into the expectations of their role, and the guards begin abusing their fellow students as if they were real prisoners.  Blakey has life and death power over Bennet, and is slowly corrupted by this power.  The racial overtones of this power exchange are made clear in one telling scene.  Blakey enters the basement to feed Bennet one morning and happens upon Bennet in the nude.  Blakey is astonished at the size of Bennet's penis, the largest Blakey has ever seen.  Another racial stereotype comes tumbling down.

Somewhere there's a lesson here, but Mosley is far too devious to spell it out.  His is a complicated moral universe, reminiscent of Herman Melville and Ralph Ellison.  There are no easy answers, no heroes, no villains.  Bennet's transgressions are revealed, and Blakey is too conflicted to overcome his own weaknesses.  Are these two antagonists locked in a mortal battle, or are they flip sides of the same human, all too human, will to power?  Mosley's fable is a minor classic, as stubbornly effective as Billy Budd or Invisible Man.  The final denouement of Bennet's and Blakey's  deadly pirouette is no surprise, but it is more
real than some contrived feel-good ending.  This short novel proves the dictum that fiction can be more true than some

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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