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.