We all know guys like Charles Blakey, the narrator of Walter Mosley's new novel, "The Man in My Basement." He's intelligent, good-looking and the scion of an excellent family -- one of the oldest black families in the Long Island town of Sag Harbor, a clan proud to say that none of its ancestors were slaves. He lives in the spacious old house his people have owned for generations. He's got a lot going for him, but he's a screw-up, a college dropout who just got fired from his job at the local bank. (They think he was embezzling, and they're right.) He lies, he drinks too much and when he's soused he says nasty things to good friends who deserve better. He's broke, riding an overdue mortgage and facing the fact that he might lose the house if he doesn't come up with the payments fast. And without the family home, where would he mope around all day, reading science fiction paperbacks, soaking up Seagram's and fuming about the long-dead uncle who called him "too lazy to lift a fork to his lips"?
Into Blakey's self-inflicted, workaday troubles, Mosley injects one Anniston Bennet, an odd little white man, clearly rich and used to getting his own way. Bennet very much wants to rent Blakey's basement, and though Blakey doesn't like the idea, eventually he knuckles under to financial necessity -- less because he's thinking of the mortgage than because he's just met an attractive woman and suddenly realizes he doesn't have enough cash to take her to dinner. "Ahead," when Blakey's thinking of it, rarely means more than a day at a time.
This sounds like the setup for a crime novel, and since Mosley made his name as the author of the Easy Rawlins mystery series, it's natural to expect that "The Man in My Basement" will be just that. But if this is crime fiction, it's of a rarefied variety, hewing closer to Paul Auster than to Raymond Chandler. Bennet may be a villain, but he doesn't arrive in Sag Harbor to tempt Blakey to further misdeeds. Instead, he wants to be punished. He will pay Blakey an outlandish sum to keep him locked up in a bare cell, with nothing but a box of books to pass the time. "This is my prison," he says. "And you are my warden and my guard." Why? "You think of the worst crime you can imagine and then make it worse. And then you will have a glimmer of what I have done."
"The Man in My Basement" is an eerie book, the more so for making no obvious attempt to creep out its readers. It hovers between the prosaic world of the genre writer and the spooked parables of Kafka. Where Kafka's style is spare, Mosley's is plain, like something made of unfinished two-by-fours, serving its purpose without any pretense to artfulness. It is utterly believable as the voice of Blakey, a man whose anomie only deepens as the novel goes along and whose pitiful inability to understand himself finds a parallel in the way language turns into a stiff, clumsy instrument in his hands. He can never quite get at what he's feeling, what might really be going on, whether he's talking to a friend or trying to fathom just what Anniston Bennet is up to.
The vertigo that "The Man in My Basement" induces also comes from the ruthlessness with which Mosley draws the moral free-fall of his narrator. He constantly thwarts any tendency to oversympathize with Blakey; the character gets exactly as much credit as every human being deserves and no more. As Bennet slowly reveals his life story to his "warden," any clear contrast between the two muddies. Bennet is white and Blakey is black, but Blakey was born into stability and comfort while Bennet was a penniless orphan of uncertain provenance. Bennet has done terrible things, but Blakey might be operating from the same principles, only at penny-ante stakes.
Unlike an episode of "The Twilight Zone" -- a series that "The Man in My Basement," with its suburban equanimity rippled by that single drop of the surreal, often feels like -- Mosley's novel doesn't end on an obvious moral. It is a puzzle whose answer erases crude notions of guilt. Just how different are Blakey and Bennet, and does the denouement of their strange relationship constitute a victory for either? The novel turns out to be a mystery after all, but one that Mosley is far too good a writer to solve for us.
-- Laura Miller