Reviewed by TONY BAER:


RICHARD WRIGHT – The Man Who Lived Underground. Library of America, hardcover, 2021. [Previously unpublished novel from the 1940s. Its only publication in Wright’s lifetime was in Accent, Spring 1942. and then only in drastically condensed form; it was later included as such in the posthumous short story collection Eight Men (1961).] Harper, softcover, 2022.

   Black dude gets off work, heading home to his pregnant wife, minding his own business, gets stopped by the cops. Who accuse him of murder.

   He’s innocent, but the cops’ll hear nothing of it. They give him the third degree, smack him around til he cannot see, then make him sign a confession.

   He escapes custody, leaping into manhole, hiding in the sewers.

   While in the sewers, he finds that he’s able to break into basements and get what he needs to survive. And more.

   One basement yields a workman’s lunch box with thick pork chop sandwiches and a nice juicy apple. A radio. And a toolbox. Another is the basement of a jewelry store, he pockets a bunch of diamonds and golden rings. Another is a butcher shop where he takes a cleaver. Another has a safe full of cash and coin.

   He takes the plunder back to an unused storage basement in a Black church, listening to the hymns, to all the guilt and sighs and cries of the parish as they pray forgiveness for a crime they never done.

   What is the meaning of all this plunder, he wonders. The cash has no use for him as he hides out beneath the city. He has all he needs. He wallpapers his dwelling with hundred dollar bills using glue from the tool chest. He hangs the rings on nails he plants in the wall. The diamonds he stamps in the floor, like stars in the sky. In reverse.

   Suddenly he realizes that, despite his indignation at being accused of a crime he never committed, we’re all guilty. And the sooner we realize that we’re all guilty, and lay down our arms, our guns, our cleavers, our pride, our defenses, our petty larcenies, our pretense, the sooner this world can be won.

   The sooner this world can be one.

   So, after a time, he decides to come back up for air. To test his way in the world again.

By this time, the cops have forgotten all about him, having found the actual murderer. But he can’t leave well enough alone. He has to convince the cops that he IS guilty. Perhaps not of that crime but of others. Of taking the jewelry, the rings and the money.

   The cops don’t understand him. They figure he’s gone mad. But just the same, can they leave such a madman loose? Or shall he be condemned?


   The best thing I’ve read in an awfully long time. Enjoyed it a heckuva lot more than Native Son. It reads like a cross of Cozzens’s Castaway and Kafka’s Trial, with a dash of “The Grand Inquisitor” at the end. It’s realistic enough to be realism, and in fact was based on an actual series of crimes committed underground via a sewer network. But the power of the thing comes from the fact that while it sounds in reality, it sounds equally in allegory. And you (as well as the protagonist) have a sneaking suspicion that something of terrific theological meaning is right at the cusp. This is where Kafka and the Grand Inquisitor come in. Nothing is stated in any express way and no conclusions are reached. But ambiguity yields a power and responsibility split with the reader. You’re left figuring. Forevermore.

   The edition I read also had an enlightening essay about the composition of the piece by Wright called “Memories of my Grandmother”. He talks about how, in his work, there are two sections. The first section is BEFORE his character is ‘broken’ and the second section is AFTER they’re broken. Something happens in a novel, perhaps a crime, that rifts the character from their ordinary life. They think they know what life is all about. And then something happens. And they are thrown from their life into a new ambiguity where none of their prior truths hold true.

    The character becomes supple in the writer’s hands, like Gumby, and the author can do anything with them at this point. All meaning becomes unhinged and ready to be rehung however you like in a world turned upside down. It’s the best thing I’ve read describing the effectiveness of the crime novel in communicating the experience of absurdity in a world gone noir.