Walter Mosley is primarily known as a crime writer, especially the first book in his series featuring a detective character named Easy Rawlins, Devil in a Blue Dress. I’ve previously only read that one book, and loved it. Around that time I picked up a few used copies of his books, including this one. I knew that he wrote outside crime fiction from time to time. Some mainstream fiction, some science fiction, and even erotica. I do want to go back and read more of the crime fiction, but I’m very glad I finally got around to this one. I guess it’s a mainstream novel, though you could squint and call it a psychological thriller, though both designations wouldn’t really prepare you for it. Whatever you call it, it’s a very good, maybe even great, incredibly unsettling novel.
Charles Blakey is an unemployed scion of a wealthy black family on Long Island. He owns the mansion in which he lives, but has taken out a mortgage on it and, at the opening of the novel, is approaching insurmountable arrears. He’s been fired from his job at a bank, accused of stealing/petty embezzlement and is edging into alcoholism. His house has an ample basement/cellar, and a white man named Anniston Bennet comes to him out of the blue to ask to rent that basement, offering him enough money that it overcomes his initial reluctance to accept. That would seem like a spoiler if not for the title, and that the offer is made on page two. The novel’s tension is primarily built through the relationship between the two men. It explores themes of race, power, capitalism, wrestling with identity and the uneasy business of what one’s personal ethics allow.
MODERATE SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH (shouldn’t ruin your enjoyment of the book, but it does reveal something that in the book doesn’t until a quarter of the way through):
Anniston Bennet is a sort of international fixer who does deals for nations and corporations ranging from ethically dubious to purely evil. He has Blakey set up a cell in the basement, in which he intends to be imprisoned as he contemplates, and in his mind atones, for his crimes. In order to make room, Blakey pulls out centuries of family objects/heirlooms that had accumulated in the basement over generations. He contacts an antiques dealer/cultural historian to help him sell some of this. Those antiques/heirlooms force Blakey into a reckoning with his past, especially a trio of ivory masks possibly brought to America by his ancestors. His family says these ancestors were indentured servants and not slaves and they take no small amount of pride in that. The dual strands of Blakey’s reckoning with his past and how he’s separated himself from his culture and his conversations with the imprisoned Bennett in which they discuss Bennett’s crimes and philosophy form the backbone of the book. It’s going to take multiple readings to suss out all the complexities, but it makes for a powerful novel.
As an aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote Mosley making a great observation about a scene in Moby Dick (my favorite novel), slightly edited to avoid a couple of spoilers:
“"You ever read Moby Dick, Charles?"
I had not and shook my head to say so.
"There's a cook in that book," [he] said, "a cook who lectures to sharks about their nature. He tells them that they could be angels if they just mastered their appetites. He preached to them, but they didn't understand. Our hearts are like those sharks. There's no curbing the appetite of a hungry shark."
"Maybe he was talking to himself." I said, not thinking really, just making up words.
But Mr. Anderson Bennet … looked up at me with something like wonder in his face. He wrestled with the words that I had already forgotten and then repeated them and then wrestled some more.
"Talking to himself," he said a third time."
This is a great reading on its own terms, but it really works thematically for the moment in which it appears in the book.
I know that I didn’t get everything that’s there on this initial reading, but it is a book that I will definitely reread several times. It is incredibly disturbing, but I absolutely loved it. I haven’t read anything precisely like it. It has one of the most chilling final lines I’ve ever read.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 39/75
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