One day a curious little white man calls on Charles Blakey at the house that Blakey's family has owned for seven generations, back to when they were freed slaves. Blakey has no job and no prospects, so when Anniston Bennet offers nearly $50,000 to live in Blakey's basement, Blakey warily accepts the offer. Just one catch: Bennet expects to live in Spartan conditions, with Blakey as his caretaker -- in effect, to be imprisoned.
The setup for The Man in My Basement, the latest novel by Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress, Fear Itself), hints at the familiar face-off between black rage and white guilt. Mosley blunts such expectations, however, focusing at length on Blakey's character flaws: He drinks too much, can't hold a job, distrusts his friends, doesn't appreciate his heritage. (He only discovers all the family heirlooms in the basement because he sneaks down there one night to have sex with two women.) Only after Blakey's shortcomings are exposed does the novel delve into Bennet's sins -- which range way beyond race relations.
Mosley may be best known for his Easy Rawlins books -- along with two other series of detective novels set in mid-century Los Angeles -- but what goes on in this particular Basement isn't a whodunit. Instead, it's a why-they-dunit, an investigation into greed, exploitation and destructive egoism. At one point, in fact, Blakey remarks of his prisoner that "He was evil and I was a failure; maybe that was the difference between the good and bad people of the world."
In significant ways, Basement dramatizes Mosley's theory in his latest book, What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace. Mosley argues there that American blacks, because they confronted the injustices of slavery, are best equipped to understand and respond to Third World anti-Americanism. In discussing the kind of power-mongering and economic exploitation for which Bennet indicts himself, Mosley's average man Blakey brings simmering anger to the table -- tempering it with an understanding of human fallibility and disappointment in his own failures.
Does Bennet seek responsibility or refuge, punishment or redemption? In spare prose that keeps the syntax simple, Mosley assembles an unexpected mosaic. The odd little white man with the patrician name, seeking to expiate guilt on a grand scale, can never quite be pinned down.