Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Man In My Basement by Walter Mosley

The loud crack of the lock snapping shut had a pronounced effect on my self-proclaimed prisoner. His face visibly paled and he grabbed onto the bars of the door with both hands.

"I thought you wanted this," I said.

"I do."

"Then why do you look so scared?"

"I had certain experiences thirty years ago that made me nervous about close spaces and locked doors," he said.

"So then why you want to lock yourself in a basement?"

"This is a punishment, Mr. Blakey, not a vacation."

This exchange occurs halfway through Walter Mosley's The Man In My Basement. I knew it was coming (it's in the title, fer crying out loud!), but I was caught off-guard by the pleasant slow-burn of Mosley's patient set-up.

Charles Blakey is black; Anniston Bennett, his "guest", is white. Bennett, an ominous stranger, pays to be held prisoner in Blakey's basement. Clearly this is a novel with a "Big Idea" and some weighty dialogue. A lesser novelist would be tempted to cut directly to the chase, and fill in the background as the conflict develops.

Mosley, however, is a pulp veteran still intent on the steady improvement of his game. He's penned over a dozen mysteries, and a handful of other entertainments; he knows how to "boat" a reader. He reaches for the tools of his trade - physical threat, racial tensions, sexual heat - and wields them with a casual elegance. Mosley claims Camus's The Stranger as the inspiration to The Man In My Basement, and he doesn't stray too far from his idol. The novel is a hybrid of Iron John myth-making, Paul Auster existentialist fable, and Stephen King potboiler. It's also a relentless page-turner: I pretty much finished it off in one sitting.

Charles Blakey is the story's feckless narrator. He's born into middle-class comfort, and lives with an unthinking ease that eventually places him in harm's way. He isn't aware of just how much harm, until his talks with Bennett turn up disquieting details. It seems Bennett works in high circles, reclaiming wealth for powerful figures. Bennett assures him that no currency is exchanged without leaving a trail of blood and misery - a fact which Blakey becomes intimately familiar with.

It's difficult to say just what effect this experience finally has on Charles Blakey by book's end. He is certainly a different man by book's end, and he seems intent on taking a measure of responsibility for his present and his past. But is he a better person for the experience? For that matter, is the reader? These questions are difficult to answer, but it is a pleasure to have them asked in a novel as entertaining as this.


DarkoV said...

Robert Bly AND Stephen King in the same review? Now, that's 2 guys I'd like to see beating drums simultaneously. Mr. Auster? Sorry to say that I'm not too familiar with him. I've enjoyed osme of Moseley's other novels, specifically his Easy Rawlins mysteries. I'd shied away from this novel, even though the reveiws, while not all great, were intriguing.
But thanks to your Bly/Stone comment, I'll have to add it to the list.
Thanks for the piquing.

Whisky Prajer said...

Darko, if you ever get the chance, I'd love to hear your thoughts on Auster's Moon Palace. I sold a few dozen copies of that book when I was a book-seller, and generally got good feedback on it. I wonder if you wouldn't "dig it", too.

DarkoV said...

Mr. WP,
Remember that old version of "A Christmas Carol"? The one with Alistair Sims? I forgot which Christmas Ghost it was (And why was it 3? Was it due to the Catholic Threeness of things?), but there was one with money boxes chained to him ,which he was condemned to drag around for all eternity, or, well at least until he found a safe and cheap rental storage facility. Well, thanks to your reviews or off-the-cuff mentionings, I know how this ghost feels. I've got tomes attached to me as I drag myself from point A to point Z. So what's another? I'll certainly put "Moon Palace" on The List. I welcome the added burden.

Whisky Prajer said...

Guys like you and I are keeping the printed word alive, my friend!

DarkoV said...

Dear Mr. WP,
If, like last summer, you find yourself out west in the US of A, lugging an empty suitcase, which will be soon overstuffed with books, I ask a favor. As a faithful reader, I almost feel this is less a favor than a justified demand. Your wife (whose image & bio I still haven't been able to find in the Book of Saints) would serve your readers well if she would take a picture of you while you're out there on your trip. I envision shorts, grubby T, dusty huaraches, sunburnt face with a decorum of stubble action. A hat, of your choice, could be pulled over your eyes and sunglasses of the Cal style could even be shading your eyes. You could still maintain your secret identity.
However, the picture must have have you gripping the suitcase tightly, preferably across your chest. You know, like those still pictures you've seen of immigrants crossing the Mexico-Tejas border, life belongings clutched with outspread fingers.
I know you don't like to post pics of any sort on your blog; I don't want you to stray away from your vision. Perhaps a temporary post of a week or two for thos interested fans of yours. If you want to straddle a motorcyle while gripping the novel luggage, that 'd be fine. The Steve McQueen of book transportation.

I ask this only for the cause of printed word ownership.

Whisky Prajer said...

Hmm. I might just do that - for the morale of the troops, of course. I've been considering the introduction of photos. My next "book stop" will be Winnipeg in July (two excellent used bookstores, just around the corner from our hosts' house). Come summertime the list of books read starts to outweigh the list of books bought, I'm sure to be in a cocky mood - a nerdy Icharus, not just flying too close to the sun, but carrying a tonne of books, too!

DarkoV said...

This (including title),

As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross. A faithless minister and his wife cling to existence in Depression-era Saskatchewan.

The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. Autobiographical fiction on the writer's life in a cold, isolating country.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. One woman's cantankerous refusal to go gently into that dark night.

The Wars by Timothy Findley. How to go from the quiet streets of Toronto to the mud-caked fields of Flanders in three easy steps.

Scar Tissue by Michael Ignatieff. A son details his mother's perilous and terrifying drift into Alzheimer's"


via the Bookslut. I'm embarassed; the only author I recognize is Ignatieff.
Read any of these and, if so, your thumb? Up or down?

Whisky Prajer said...

Down for most of them, I'm afraid. I've been trolling for "Prajer" blog material, but I believe you've just handed it to me on a platter. Thank you, and stay tuned!