Thursday, November 11, 2010
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley
Title: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
Author: Walter Mosley
Publisher: Riverhead, 2010
Hardcover, 288 pages
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program
First Line: "Hello?" the very, very old black man said into the receiver.
91-year-old Ptolemy Grey is a forgotten man. Forgotten by his family, his friends, even himself. Advancing with tottering steps into dementia, he lives in Los Angeles, in an apartment stuffed to the ceiling with mementos of his long life.
Things don't look good for Ptolemy. His physical frailty and his faulty memory make him extremely suspicious of everyone, but when he meets Robyn, his niece's 17-year-old lodger, the two of them seem to recognize in each other a kindred spirit. With lots of persuasion and elbow grease, Robyn cleans Ptolemy's apartment and moves in to care for him. She pushes him outside to interact with others, and somehow this leads Ptolemy to a doctor with an experimental drug. If Ptolemy takes this drug, he won't live to see 92, but his mind will be clear and will function properly. Ptolemy has things he wants to do before he dies, and without hesitation, he signs up.
It took me a few pages to get into this book. Mosley does a masterful job of portraying an elderly person suffering from dementia. There were so many stops and starts and false trails in Ptolemy's speech that, after a few pages, I was worn out and had to focus on something else. But those pages passed quickly, and I found myself lost in a spellbinding tale.
The second I read this character's full name, I loved how evocative it is: Ptolemy Usher Grey. Cleopatra's father, Edgar Allen Poe's House of Usher, Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey. Mosley treated his title character with such sensitivity, patience, and faith that it was difficult to believe Ptolemy wasn't a living, breathing human being.
It was interesting to witness life and history through Ptolemy's eyes-- a man who lived through lynchings, burnings and the Klan and a time where all his people knew they had to stand together in order to survive... to a man living in Los Angeles, the land of make believe. A land where his people are now fragmented and tearing each other apart.
The only thing that didn't quite ring true in the entire book was the experimental drug Ptolemy took in order to get his mind back. Fortunately the rest of this book is so strong and real that the drug was easy for me to shove to the back of my mind.
If you love memorable characters, please sit down with Ptolemy Grey. This frail old man will stay in your mind for a very long time to come.