Who is Ptolemy Grey and why should we care? Walter Mosley's novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (Riverhead, 2010) does more than introduce a Mr. Grey, a 91 year-old African-American addled by dementia who is given a second chance at getting his life in order via the dangerous vehicle of an experimental drug. What will he do with what little time he has left? This extremely well-written novel is not without suspense.
Ptolemy Grey's last days are well worth our time. What family he has left in southern Los Angeles have been taking advantage of him, raking what they can from his retirement checks and generally giving him the shaft. The exception is his nephew Reggie, but he becomes the victim of a drive-by shooting. Then along comes Robyn, a teen angel in disguise. Not family exactly, more a friend of the family -- and she more or less adopts Ptolemy, and vice versa. Soon his cluttered apartment is made over, the plumbing back in order, the kitchen sink empty of crusty remains.
Battling with his newly recovered memories, Ptolemy identifies a lack of courage. The child of a sharecropper, Ptolemy grew up in Mississippi and witnessed the lynching of Coy, a man he considered a mentor and whose ghostly voice voice he still hears. In fact, Ptolemy is hiding a cache of gold coins Coy gave him, coins stolen from a nasty plantation owner. And so the plot thickens as we watch Ptolemy get his surprisingly considerable estate in order. Karmic revenge is also involved, but I will leave those details undisclosed.
Although some of the flashbacks and distorted memories were at times confusing, that is to be expected in a book touching on dementia. What emerges is a prickly and robust time-lapsed photo of Ptolemy Grey in the making. We begin to understand his every quirk and motive. Whether we approve of some his choices is another thing, and would be good fodder for book group discussions. Not to be hyperbolic, but for me, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey comes darn close to being a Great American Novel.