Walter Mosley is probably most famous for his popular mystery series starring African-American detective Easy Rawlins. But he has written over 30 novels that have switched genres seamlessly, from mysteries to serious fiction. Mosley is a natural-born storyteller and, like all great novelists, has a knack for being able to capture the pulse of his era. He does that brilliantly here. THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY is one of his greatest novels and a terrific story.
Ptolemy Grey is 91 years old and in deep trouble when the book starts. Dementia has left him lost in a fog between things that happened to him eight decades before and the present. His wife is long dead, and he is living alone in a vermin-infested, impossibly cluttered apartment in a dangerous section of L.A. The bathroom is stopped up, and his bedroom has been sealed off since his wife died there. He sleeps on a mattress beneath the “southern table.” His only company is the TV and radio, which are on 24/7, tuned to a cable news channel and classical music station. He can’t turn them off for fear he will touch the wrong knob and never find them again.
In this childlike state, his only lifeline is his grandnephew, Reggie, who comes over every few weeks to take him to the store and bank. Ptolemy lives in a self-created tomb. Whenever he ventures out alone, he is viciously attacked and robbed by a woman who is the neighborhood junkie. His apartment contains “the detritus of a lifetime… like so much soil pressed down into a grave.”
What is even more hellish is that he is somewhat aware of his condition. His mind is “locked on the other side of a closed door he lost the key for. So memory became like secrets held away from his own mind. But these secrets were noisy things; they babbled and muttered behind the door, and so if he listened closely he might catch a snatch of something he once knew well.”
Then disaster really strikes when Reggie is killed in a drive-by shooting. Another distant young relative brings him to the bank, steals two thirds of his retirement check, and takes him to Reggie’s wake. There, this lost child of an old man meets a lost child of a 17-year-old girl who is also on her own with no family at all. And magic happens. Robyn enters Ptolemy’s life and refuses to allow him to lose his dignity in his final days. And a strong bond of improbable love develops between the two.
The old man is haunted by his past, including seeing his uncle and mentor lynched and set on fire by a mob in Mississippi. He has lived an ordinary, nondescript life. But he is obsessed by what he did not have the courage to do and wants to do something to make it all right at the end. Robyn cleans out his apartment and makes it livable again. Then she takes him to a rather shady doctor who is doing “experiments” on memory drugs for those suffering from dementia.
Ptolemy, who grew up in Mississippi and knows all about the blues, instantly recognized the doctor as “Satan” and sees the Faustian bargain being offered him. The memory drug will give him back his memory for just a few weeks but then kill him. He immediately takes the deal, seeing it as his chance at redemption, his opportunity to possibly avenge Reggie’s murder and provide for the new woman he deeply loves and Reggie’s two young children.
Through his art, a great novelist can reflect where a country has been and where it is going. Mosley has said that this book was inspired by his mother’s five-year descent into dementia. And indeed, as the baby boomers age, this is a disease that tortures more and more families. But how many of these once-proud elders will be forced to face this sad twilight alone like Ptolemy? Ptolemy’s extended family is in too much of an economic struggle for survival to take him in or give him much care. Now, we live in a country where politicians glibly talk about ending “entitlements” to solve the debt crises. And that is code word for cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and social programs to help the poor and elderly, while the rich get more tax breaks and eat up more and more of the nation’s wealth.
And Mosley also tackles the issue of violence in America. The 24-hour TV news talks endlessly about bombs going off in Baghdad as a result of our war of choice, while young men of color gun down each other on the Mean Streets of America. Mosley said in an interview: “The violence against black manhood starts with Africans kidnapped from their native lands, robbed of their freedom, broken down in a culture that they have no investment in and then, finally, turned against themselves. From lynching to self-eradication is a straight, short line.”
But while dealing with reality, a novelist also deals with the human heart in crises, and here is where THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY becomes a great American novel. The love between Ptolemy and Robyn is not salacious but pure --- the union of two lost and damaged souls that ultimately transcends boundaries of time, age and death itself. At first glance, some might be tempted to write Ptolemy off as a sad old man who lived longer than he should have. In his last days, however, he is willing to struggle and fight for redemption and justice. And in his fight and victory lay the seeds of our possible triumph.
What Walter Mosley has accomplished in this beautiful little book is to teach us that it is never too late for us --- never too late to find love, never too late for redemption, never too late to make a stand and fight for what is right. There is always hope right up until the last second. Our ultimate challenge is to have the courage to make the fight and never give up like Ptolemy Grey.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on October 31, 2011
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey