Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Man in my Basement by Walter Mosley


Amongst the 5 for €5 that I got recently was my first Walter Mosley, The Man in my Basement. It isn’t in the genre of hard boiled detective usually associated with this writer but whether it extends his reach beyond his usual grasp is a question that those up on his oeuvre would be better able to answer. I liked it with some reservations about the symbolic schematism.

Charles Blakey who regards himself as Black blue blood for an ancestor that emigrated from Africa as an indentured servant, opens the door to a white man who has a strange request. He wants to rent the basement for a month. It is a commodious dry glory hole with the lumber of several generations in it. Above it are 3 stories of what my American paperback cover illustrates as Famille Bates style grandeur. ‘Why would he want to rent a basement from me’ asks Charles never Chuck or Charlie. It seems that he wants to set up a cage to live in for a month to expiate his sins. Whether sins against humanity or sins against credibility or a chunk of symbolism from a corn flakes packet need not wrinkle your smooth brow. There it is.

Charles Blakey who is in trouble with the mortgage and is unemployed and on his way to being a career lush is an interesting and I thought a well drawn character in the outsider mode. It is likely that the distraction of the basement is only a way of exercising some moral muscles for our anti-hero. His friends are worried about him and put up with his disdain and know more about him that he thinks they do. They are impatient and see the fall of the House of Blakey as immanent. Clearing the basement has brought to light a lot of valuable antiques and some ‘passport’ masks. This brings in an elaboration of the plot in the form of a dealer woman friend who brokers this valuable cache. She interprets his anomie as distress at the forced sale of his heritage. He allows her to think that but is unable to break out of his settled aloofness for the ordinary reason of being special unto himself. There is no easy resolution to his distance from others. Technically the basement cell is a plot extension like a hair extension, slightly unreal, slightly de trop. Alors. When it runs its course the novel has run its course which is a short 213 pages. Is the renter Anniston Bennet a mask through whose empty eyes we stare into hell?

Anniston Bennet came on Friday at 4:00 exactly. He wore yellow short sleeves over a blue T-shirt, and brown trousers. His tennis shoes were the same blue as his shirt. He had no tie and the yellow shirt was open at the throat, showing a hairy pale neck over the top of the T-shirt collar. His head was oval and his chin came to a tip like the masks that I kept in their box on the windowsill next to my bed. His blue eyes were a perpetual shock, but there was no wonder or magic in the rest of his face.

Blakey is a liar and he knows it if you allow that a liar knows anything that isn’t falsified on sight.

I’ve lied all my life. To my parents and teachers and friends at school I lied about being sick and not coming in to work, about romantic conquests, my salary, my father’s job. I’ve lied about where I was last night and where I was right then if I was on the phone and no one could see me. I have lied and been called a liar and then lied again to create other falsehoods. Sometimes I lie to tell people what I think they want to hear.
It’s not such a bad thing - lying. Sometimes it protects people’s feelings or gives them confidence or just makes them laugh.

This is an unreliable narrator but he’s telling us that. Is the Southampton liar a Cretan liar? I’ll be looking out for more Mosley.

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