In The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, Walter Mosley takes us into the feeble mind of a 91-year-old black man. Ptolemy lives alone, almost crowded out of his apartment by a lifetime’s worth of stuff, and largely forgotten by his family except for his great-grandnephew. When the young man is killed in a drive-by shooting, Ptolemy is left in the care of the stunning, yet underage Robyn, a family friend.
Robyn cleans Ptolemy’s apartment and helps him with his errands, but more importantly, sees the man inside the shell. Something his well-meaning great-grandnephew never did. She values him, even though he has been cast aside by society at large. She is “wild and violent” but “sweet and loving.” She becomes his muse, guiding him to fulfill his higher purpose.
In this kind of novel, characterization is king and subtle characterization at that. It’s layers upon delicate layers like the phyllo dough of a baklava. Our protagonist is the very definition of unreliable. His thought process is jumbled. He lives in a haze, and Mosley wisely has the narrator in a state of confusion also, so the reader can’t get a clear beat on Ptolemy, just as it would be in real life. When a family member takes him to the bank to cash checks, he thinks he’s being swindled. Is it true or is it just the faulty memory of a dementia-addled mind? Mosley walks the fine line between perception and reality. How does he make you care about Ptolemy, yet not feel sorry for him? That’s what makes Walter Mosley a master.
Ptolemy is given an opportunity not afforded anyone else. He is the perfect candidate to take an experimental drug that will relieve his dementia, but shorten his life to mere weeks. With his newfound lucidity comes more of his past and an urgency to follow through on a promise made to his Mississippi childhood friend and amateur philosopher Coydog McCann. One lovely Coydog gem: “The great man say that life is pain…That mean if you love life, then you love the hurt come along wit’ it. Now, if that ain’t the blues, I don’t know what is.” Another: “Money ain’t the root of all evil…They’s some people need money before love or laughter. All you can do is feel sorry for someone like that…Rich man is the man live in his own skin.”
If you’ve read some of my other reviews, you know how I feel about writing in dialect. It is so rarely needed and it is so often poorly executed. The only time it works is when the reader can hear the dialect in his or her head as natural speech patterns thereby not removing the reader from the story to “translate.” A character’s word choice can convey just as much, if not more, than dialect. Robyn says to Ptolemy, talking about a photograph, “Let me put that away someplace safe so we can take it to the drug sto’ copycat to see if they can make a good print of it.” The use of the word “copycat” instead of copier, reveals something about her character, more so than the “sto'” for store. Sometimes Mosley takes the dialect a bit too far (“wif” for with), but what a minor thing in an engaging, brave book.
Why should you read about an old man who, for most of the book, can’t escape his own mind? Because at the heart of this story are the universal truths of true love, fulfilling one’s destiny and validation. Ptolemy is the AARP version of Huckleberry Finn – a character you won’t soon forget.