The Man in My Basement
is a philosophical novel and work of literary fiction by Walter Mosley, who is more commonly known for his mystery novels. In this novel, Mosley strays away from his conventions to explore ideas of power, race and racism, inheritance, and punishment through the characters of Charles Blakely and Anniston Bennet. The premise of the novel is relatively simple: Bennet asks Blakely if he can rent the basement of his family home for a few months, for the cost of $50,000. The novel itself, however, is more concerned with the lives of Blakely and Bennet, their motivations, and the way they navigate the influence of their ancestry.
Charles Blakely is descended from a family of free blacks who built an enormous home, which has been passed down now for seven generations. Now thirty-three years old, Blakely, the sole inheritor of the house, lives there by himself, generally ambling through life without much motivation or drive to make something of his time on Earth. Recently fired from his job when the novel begins, he struggles to pay the property taxes and for the upkeep on the family home. Despite his financial troubles, he doesn't seem particularly interested in getting a job to solve his money problems.
Instead of working, Blakely begins to mosey through the world, playing frequent card games with his friends Ricky and Clarence, drinking, and having affairs with a plethora of women. While he is ignoring all of his problems – or, drinking and gambling them away – the bills continue to stack up. This puts him in a strange position when Anniston Bennet, a WASPy white man approaches him, asking if he can give him $50,000 to rent the rooms in his basement.
At first, Blakely is worried at the thought of a relatively eccentric stranger, who obviously has a large amount of money, renting his basement apartment. Bennet informs Blakely that he is interested, essentially, in creating his own prison – he wants to punish himself for the harm he has done to humanity, and he sees Blakely's basement as the perfect location for his self-imposed sentence. Blakely doesn't like the idea of Bennet living with him, prison or no prison, but he needs the cash. Eventually, he agrees, and Bennet moves in.
The racial allusions in the book are clear. Bennet uses a lock formerly used on slave ships to lock himself into Blakely's basement; the lock forces Blakely to reflect on the fact that none of his relatives were ever enslaved – something that separates him from most other black men in America. Bennet is interested in doing penance for a number of things – his power, his wealth, and the privilege that he carries as a white man from a good family. In an odd reversal of roles, Blakely, the black man, is free, while Bennet remains imprisoned, and the dynamic forces Blakely to reflect on the way the world works in ways he never had before.
Similarly, Mosley is interested in the similarities between Blakely and Bennet. While Bennet imprisons himself, physically restricting his ability to access the outside world, Mosley makes the argument that Blakely is imprisoned too – his prison is psychological. While Bennet is cut off from the outside world in a basement, Blakely cuts himself off from the world with booze, women, and a lack of motivation or curiosity about the world around him. However, a relationship with a female curator that comes after Bennet finds African tribal masks hidden in Blakely's basement causes Blakely to reconsider his lackadaisical approach to life.
A novelist from Los Angeles, California, Walter Mosley is the author of a best-selling series of historical detective novels featuring Easy Rawlins, a World War II veteran and African American private investigator who solves crimes in the Watts neighborhood of L.A. Though best known for his mystery series, Mosley has also written novels, young adult fiction, erotica, plays, science fiction, and non-fiction, including books on political activism and one book on how to write a novel. His books have been the subject of criticism by academics, and some of his works have been adapted for TV. Mosley, who identifies as both black and Jewish, lives in New York City with his wife.