Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fiction Review: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

Until recently, I had never heard of prolific author Walter Mosley before – a stunning omission since I found out he’s written over 50 books! His novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, was chosen as our All-County Reads selection for this spring, a book-centric event I always enjoy. I picked up a copy of the novel at the library and read it before going to hear Mosley speak. I was blown away by this powerful novel about family, aging, and memory.

As the novel opens, Ptolemy Grey is ninety-one years old. He lives alone in a junk-filled, decrepit apartment and spends much of his time mentally living in the past and afraid of a myriad of threats in the present. Ptolemy is very isolated, except for his grandnephew, Reggie, who visits every few days and accompanies him to the grocery store and bank. He’s very confused when Reggie doesn’t come by for days and finally an unfamiliar teen boy shows up at his door. He turns out to be Hilly, Ptolemy’s great-grandnephew, though even after the boy explains this, Ptolemy remains confused.

Reggie, the one person Ptolemy trusts and relies on, has died in a drive-by shooting. Ptolemy is even more confused than usual, as he accompanies Hilly to Reggie’s funeral. Ptolemy has plenty of nieces and nephews and other family members who seem familiar at the funeral, but their names and relationships to him swim in and out of his understanding. Two things stand out to him that day, though: Reggie’s two small children whose mother leaves the funeral to be with her boyfriend and 17-year old Robyn, a friend of the family who’s been staying at the house with Ptolemy’s grandniece since her own mother died.

From that day on, Robyn and Ptolemy begin a unique and powerful friendship. When Robyn takes Reggie’s place and comes to Ptolemy’s apartment the next day to see if he needs anything, she’s not overwhelmed by the mess like most people. Instead, she immediately begins to clean things up, assuring Ptolemy that she won’t get rid of anything he wants to keep. He’s suspicious at first and watches her carefully, but Robyn works hard, first restoring Ptolemy’s bathroom to clean, working order and then tackling the rest of the apartment over the next days and weeks. Through this process, Ptolemy comes to trust Robyn. He knows he wants to help the orphaned Robyn somehow, as well as Reggie’s young children, but things have a way of slipping in and out of his mind.

Although the novel is written in the third-person, the narration shows the inner workings of Ptolemy’s confused brain. He often drifts back to the distant past, to his own childhood, when an uncle/family friend named Coydog was both friend and mentor to Ptolemy (then known as L’il Pea), passing along all kinds of wisdom to him that now comes back to him in bits and pieces – and providing the reader with insight into Ptolemy’s earlier life. In the present, Ptolemy is often afraid of his surroundings and the people around him: scary Melinda, the drug addict who always asks him for money, as well as anyone unfamiliar to him.

When Robyn takes Ptolemy to a doctor to try to help him with his failing memory, he is presented with a unique opportunity that might possibly give him a temporary glimpse into the sharp mind he used to have. There are significant risks, but Ptolemy knows that there are important things he must take care of while he still can…if only he could remember exactly what they are.

This novel is moving and emotionally powerful in so many ways: the insight into Ptolemy’s fading mind, the joyful friendship between him and Robyn, the acute pain of growing old and becoming dependent. I couldn’t help but think of my own father-in-law who is 90 years old and whom we recently moved near us, and I wondered whether he is experiencing some of these same powerful, painful changes as Ptolemy.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a thoughtful drama about family, memory, and aging, but it is also something of a fantasy about medical miracles that come with strings attached, making you wonder what you would do in Ptolemy’s situation. Mosley brings the characters and the settings to life in a very real way, through dialogue, dialect, observations, and all the senses. His writing moved me greatly, and I still find myself thinking about Ptolemy and his world, almost a month after finishing the novel. I can’t wait to read more from Mosley.

277 pages, Riverhead Books

Look for my upcoming post on Walter Mosley’s excellent talk for our All-County Reads program.

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