Book review: ‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’ by Walter Mosley
With his 30th novel, “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” the fascinating Walter Mosley not only returns to top form, but also extends once again the boundaries of the hard-boiled suspense genre in which his best work always has been rooted.
No other writer of the 58-year-old Mosley’s generation has done quite as much to keep the style of Hammett and Chandler from lapsing into mere mannerism. His popular Easy Rawlins mysteries — probably his best books until now — extended the genre’s affinity for social realism and added a dimension of historical recovery in portraying African Americans’ vital but bittersweet life in postwar Los Angeles.
In “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” Mosley returns to contemporary Los Angeles with a daring, beautifully wrought story that incorporates elements of allegory, meditative reflection and the lilt of lyric tragedy. For obvious reasons, we can never know the confusion and loss of intellectual faculties that so often attend old age, but in this novel Mosley gives as convincing an evocation as you’re likely to encounter in literature. The result is an unexpectedly profound novel of the subtle links between memory and identity, of the difference between forgetting and having the past stripped from you, of what it may mean to be lost, first to those around you, then to yourself.
Mosley’s unlikely protagonist is Ptolemy Grey, a 91-year-old African American living as a near-recluse in a filthy, rented apartment in one of South L.A.'s meaner neighborhoods. His flat is cluttered with trash and the material fragments of a life dissolving in dementia. Ptolemy’s beloved second wife, Sensia, is decades dead; roaches patrol his kitchen counters; his bathroom hasn’t worked for years and he sleeps under a table in the living room, perhaps because his bedroom is stuffed with a pack rat’s junk, perhaps for darker reasons. Even he is no longer quite sure. His real companions are a classical music radio station and an all-news television channel that he keeps on simultaneously, day and night.
For some time, Ptolemy’s only link to the outside world has been his grandnephew Reggie, but when the young man is killed in a drive-by shooting, the old man is left to the care of far less scrupulous relatives. At Reggie’s funeral, however, Robyn Small — a niece’s teen lodger — offers to take on his care. She is the book’s other protagonist and one of the most successfully realized females in Mosley’s fiction. Robyn’s practical affection, which begins with an agonizing cleaning of Ptolemy’s Hogarthian flat, reawakens the old man to both love and the desire to reclaim his own identity. Here, for example, is Robin cleaning his filthy bathroom:
“Once she found an old sepia photograph way down under the sink. It was the picture of a huge brown woman holding the hand of a skinny, frowning little boy.
“ ‘Who is this, Mr. Grey?’ she asked, coming out to see him.
“Ptolemy had set his folding stool right at the door so that he could see everything the teenager was doing.
“ ‘Oh, don’t throw that away. No, no.’
“He took the crumbling photograph in his hand. It had once been five inches by eight but now the corners and sides had been eaten away by damp rot. The woman’s face was water-stained, as was the bottom half of the boy’s body. He held the picture gently as if holding a wounded creature.
“ ‘That’s my mother,’ he whispered, ‘and her son … me.’
“ ‘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,’ she said, taking the fragile memory from the man’s thick black fingers.”
Partly because of his growing affection for Robyn, partly because her soothing care has reawakened vague recollections of a great secret and its attendant obligation, Ptolemy enters into what can be called only a Faustian bargain. Through a social worker, he meets a physician who is conducting experiments with a drug that relieves the symptoms of senile dementia. The drug’s side effect, unfortunately, is death, though for a few weeks, the old man will experience a return to complete lucidity. (Mosley has been steeped in black history since his days as a student at L.A.'s legendary Victory Baptist Day School, so it’s impossible not to see in the doctor’s offer Mosley’s own awareness of all those black men unknowingly subjected to medical experiments through the years.)
Ptolemy accepts the drug, and gradually we get to know his history not just in drifting fragment, but in chronology. Many lives, in fact, are recovered — a childhood in rural Mississippi where he saw a boyhood friend burned to death in a house fire and a favorite uncle lynched; service in World War II; migration to Los Angeles; two marriages; work delivering ice and as a county maintenance man. There is also a great secret, a treasure kept in trust that now may provide for Robyn’s future and that of many others. First, though, there is Reggie’s killer to track down and a final redemptive act of violence to perform.
As he writes to Robyn, “So if something should happen and I don’t make it past this afternoon, I want you to know how much I love you and I am in love with you. You deserve the best I can offer and that’s why I’m sitting here with a pistol under the cushion and a gold doubloon on the coffee table. You might not understand. You might think that it don’t have a thing to do with you and you don’t want me acting a fool like this…You might say why live a whole life being careful and then throw it all away at the last minute?” He has his reasons — and she may be the most important one.
At the heart of this remarkable new novel is a tragic wisdom — universal in implication, Mosley-specific in expression — summed up by Ptolemy’s Mississippi boyhood friend Coydog: “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.”