Maybe it's the first person narration playing mind games on me - did you ever notice that it's much harder to hate, or even dislike, a character when (s)he speaks to you directly? - but I actually find Charles to be a pretty sympathetic character. Sure, he's lazy, lacks direction and motivation; he's dishonest and gets a kick out of verbally abusing people close to him (the Clarance/Uncle Brent parallels are quite striking.. although Clarance is a lot less deserving of the abuse, in my opinion). However, so far (about 80 pages in), all his negative traits seem to boil down to two things, things that go hand in hand: insecurity and low self-esteem. All his less-than-flattering behaviour appears to be the direct result of feeling inferior, due to people shattering his already weak sense of self. When Clarance tells him to get his act together, get a job, or else he'll end up like old man Bradford, "sleepin' in somebody's garage, eatin' old-day bread, and drinkin' brand X" (page 10 - at least in my edition), he knows that Clarance is right. Clarance hit a nerve that comment - if I may speculate, I'd say that the "drinkin' brand X" part in particular really hit home; on numerous occasions, Charles goes out of his way to tell us that he doesn't have a drinking problem, he just likes to drink, he's in control. Obviously upset, Charles then gets back at Clarance by trying to demasculate him, Clarance the ladies' man.
(What's with Clarance's reaction to that, by the way? Any thoughts? Is it because he knows Charles does it out of spite, or is he homophobic? Wait. Perhaps that question will be answered later on.)
Regardless of why Charles and Clarance talk to each other the way they do, it would appear that theirs is a relationship where power - or lack thereof - is a huge issue. Clearly, Charles wants to be perceived as an educated, smart person - his going to college (before dropping out) and getting a job in banking (before getting fired) is probably, at least in part, a manifestation of that, as is the impromptu subscription to the New York Times. The fact that Clarance occasionally outsmarts him, even though he's "the smart one", infuriates him. It's inferiority and a poor sense of self, not malice, that makes Charles lash out on Clarance. Same thing with the money he stole from the bank. Maybe I'm too early in on the story to speculate, but it seems like Charles stole the money a) to appear suave and well-off in front of China - again, the lack of self-esteem, and b) to see if he could get away with it. There is nothing truly bad about Charles' character. It's the cowardly, passive-aggressive, lazy side of him that makes him human and, therefore, sympathetic. Like I said earlier, I'm not sure just how much of Charles' likability is due to the first-person narrative, but it's interesting to see how many diverse reactions he's received by us so far. I'd agree with Dinahann: Charles really seems adrift. I wouldn't call him soulless, though, for the reasons that my rant will hopefully explain.
Feel free to tell me to shut up if I get too excited and far-fetched, but here's a few other observations I've made so far. You're welcome to jump in and contradict and/or agree with me any time.
First of all, the language, which I find so important in a novel. I'm very, very impressed with Mosley's style. He makes everything seem so effortless, so smooth. There aren't a whole lot of fancy words or intricate sentences, but each word just seemsright. Kudos to Mr. Mosley.
Back to Charles now. The first scene with Narciss definitely increases his likability. What is it about her that makes him act so out of character? Why doesn't he feel the need to lie? Would we as readers have thought of Charles as "a sweet man" if Narciss didn't say those exact words?
I've also been thinking a lot about the variations of blackness and their connotations. Each time a new person is introduced, their skin tone is mentioned. Uncle Brent's "kind of blackness" is frowned upon by Charles - why? Is it because he hates his uncle, making each character trait, even skin tone, guilty by association so to speak, or does Charles prefer lighter-skinned blacks? For me, who never even think about what colour skin people I meet have, this is interesting, not to say puzzling. Mosley addresses the hierarchy and internal racism within African-American communities, where light skin seems to be preferred to Brent's darker skin.
Being white and living in a predominantly white community, I hardly ever reflect upon skin colour. Charles' preoccupation with skin tones made me realise why that is. I don't reflect upon my skin tone because I'm white and therefore - sadly, STILL in this so-called enlightened day and age - the rule as opposed to the exception. No one reflects upon whiteness, the same way no one reflects upon heterosexuality. Joyce Carol Oates has noted that the term "Woman writer" is in fact an anomaly: there are no "Male writers". Same thing with Toni Morrison, who is often referred to as a "black writer" (a black Woman writer, no less). Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters are constantly labelled as "lesbian writers". Has anyone ever referred to Joyce Carol Oates as a "white writer"? Anyone heard Stephen King presented as "heterosexual best-selling writer Stephen King"? Of course, this is a rhetorical question. No one specifies the normative; there is no need.
I'm definitely off-topic here, but it's interesting to see just how many questions and thoughts The Man in the Basement generates. It's definitely a rewarding read. Thanks so much for suggesting it to us, phat.