Title: The Man who Lived Underground Author: Richard Wright
Publisher: Library of America
Genre: Literary Fiction
I was absolutely stunned as I turned the pages and devoured this previously unpublished work of Richard Wright. The Man who Lived Underground is about an innocent black man who gets trapped in double homicide and brutalised by the police force. He is wrongly accused, interrogated for the sake of it, and finally not even entitled to a lawyer to fight his case. This book is set in 1942. Sadly, nothing has changed.
Fred Daniels manages to escape from police custody and enters the sewers, and this is really where the story takes place. He has lost his home, his wife, and his new-born child – all because of his colour and the racism that exists. He is making his way through the sewer questioning life and death, his existence at large, and what will happen to him once he is found by the authorities.
The writing is quick in most parts, verbose in some, but never lets go of the reader. You can see Wright’s touch through and through, but more than that, I also saw a lot of Baldwin in the book. Perhaps Baldwin inspired Wright to write the way he did.
The experience of reading about a man in a sewer is nightmarish, almost allegorical, even magic realism taking on in the prose to some extent. Everything in the sewer takes on a different meaning – from a car sloshing through a puddle, or the scream of a baby, or a shout – it is all different for Fred much like when he exists on the world above.
Wright’s writing cuts to the bone. Empathy flows throughout. There is madness. There is chaos. And it all seems like one big fever dream, an old story told over and over again – when everyday life is taken over by hallucinations in order to make it bearable.