Sunday, January 16, 2011

THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY by Walter Mosley




There's something special about a truly good book.  It puts your life in perspective.

That's what Walter Mosley's The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey did for me. I had to decide what I really value. If I had a choice, how would I spend my last days. 

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey makes it clear that the time could come for many of us.  We will have to decide how to use our last days.

Ptolemy Grey is a ninety-one-year-old man in the early stages of dementia.  Someone guns down his nephew Reggie in a drive-by shooting.  But the central murder in the story occurred long before that. It is the murder of Ptolemy's boyhood mentor Coydog McCann.  That murder is described this way:

"Ptolemy remembered Coydog telling about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and then he remembered the old man with a noose around his neck, standing on tiptoes on a wooden box that wasn't tall enough to keep him from choking a little; and all the white men and boys standing around, laughing; and then the man pouring kerosene on Coy's feet and lighting it so that the old man couldn't stand still to keep from hanging himself; and then Coy dancing in the air, his feet and pants on fire and all the white people laughing."

The lynching of Coydog (who had stolen a valuable treasure from an abusive white man) formed Ptolemy's life.  Coydog and the values Coydog represented led Ptolemy to be what he had been.  The book is filled with Coydog's advice to Ptolemy.

In the midst of Ptolemy's dementia, two people come along.  One is an "adopted" niece named Robyn; the other is the Devil in the form of a doctor who prescribes a medicine which gives Ptolemy a few weeks of lucidity.  Ptolemy uses those last weeks to identify the murderer, arrange for the futures of those to whom Ptolemy feels an obligation, and then to bring justice.

This is not a mystery story.  It is a story of, if not revenge, then maybe tit-for-tat.  And it is a strong story.

This book surprised me.  Because it is written through the eyes of an old man with dementia, I had expected it to be a hard read.  It is not.

I had thought Walter Mosley could not write anything better than some of the Easy Rawlins stories.  But this book was at least more fundamental.

Some people may choose to avoid reading The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.  It deals with dementia, a topic we often prefer to avoid.  And it is written with the same stark reality that all the Mosley books have had for me.

I'm glad I didn't avoid this book.  It was well worth reading.

8 comments:

Paul D. Brazill said...

This looks like a special book. I've read a few Mosley but didn't know about this on. Good call.

Joe Barone said...

This is a newer one. I did find it to be a special book.

Evan Lewis said...

Sounds like a far cry from Easy Rawlins.

Joe Barone said...

Evan,
It is a far cry from Easy Rawlins in a way, but that's one thing I admire about Mosely. He's certainly not a one note orchestra.

JNichols said...

I enjoyed The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Walter Mosley's superb writing skills really shone using first person point of view. The story unfolded through the mind and voice of Ptolemy Grey.

I have read all the books in the Easy Rawlins series, which I enjoyed, and now I am enjoying the complex Leonid McGill. I am looking forward to the next book in the Leonid series.

Joe Barone said...

I love Mosley's writing too.

Espana said...

Ultimately, this novel becomes a powerful mediation on the end of a person's life. Ptolomy confronts what he has accomplished and what he has left undone, balances his love for people long dead with his obligations and connections to the generations left to come, and does his best to put his life and his own memories in order. Mosley does a great job with his characters, including Grey himself, Grey's new friend Robyn, and some characters who we only see through Grey's or other's memories, like his mentor, his childhood friend, and his grand-nephew Reggie. All of these characters were powerfully real, and fascinating.

Joe Barone said...

Nice comment Espana. Thanks.