At 91, Ptolemy Grey is “waiting to finally be a man.” as he writes in his last letter, addressed to his young charge and heir Robyn. The novel begins backwards with an “Afterward” that summarizes the whole of Ptolemy’s nine-decades-plus, but to understand why he’s sitting there “with a pistol under the cushion and a gold doubloon on the kitchen table,” you’ll have to unravel the almost-300 pages (or eight hours if you’re listening) that follow.
Ptolemy has dementia. He lives alone in an apartment in Los Angeles so cluttered (filthy and bug-infested, too) that he can’t use his own bedroom, and even worse his own bathroom. His only regular human contact has been with his grandnephew Reggie who used to come take care of him. Now Reggie’s dead, gunned down on a friend’s front steps.
At Reggie’s funeral, Ptolemy meets 17-year-old Robyn, an orphan living with his niece, who shows up at his front door and offers her company and help. Suspicious at first, Ptolemy allows Robyn to clear the detritus from his apartment (not to mention his heart and soul). They quickly become inseparable, their unlikely relationship settling somewhere between parent and child, and impossible lovers.
When Ptolemy is offered a chance to take an experimental drug that will give him temporary clarity, he grabs the opportunity to finally make sense – and peace – with the ghosts of his frightened past: his mentor Coydog who was brutally murdered, his beloved wife Sensia who continually broke his heart, the neighborhood addict Melinda who demands his money, and finally, to find out what happened to his grandnephew Reggie. Ptolemy’s memories can’t be separated from almost a century of destructive, racially-charged history brought so sharply into focus so you can’t look away. Ptolemy’s reprieve is brief, but ignorance is no longer an option for the reader …
Confession: This is the first book by the prolific Walter Mosley that I’ve ever finished; I didn’t actually read it myself – narrator Dominic Hoffman conjured the story in his smooth, inviting voice. I admit to the possibility I might not have reached the end this time, either – Ptolemy’s sudden backroom access to the experimental drugs is not particularly convincing, Ptolemy’s hazy insistence he’s made a deal with the Devil seems tiresomely derivative, Reggie’s murderer is so obvious you really wonder why Ptolemy needs fatal hallucinogens to figure that out, and the just-on-the-edge-of-skeezy reminders of the relationship between Ptolemy and a teenager young enough to be his great-great(!!)-granddaughter gets to be a bit much.
But, finish I had to because Ptolemy Grey turned out to be part of a tremendously insightful look into Alzheimer’s. And getting on in years, I needed the education. [Thanks again to my poet friend, who is famous for her writings on her own mother’s battle with the debilitating illness, most notably her Dementia Blog.]
If you choose to partake (and well you should if the topic is of interest – or a necessity? – to you), here’s the recommended path: Start with Alice LaPlante’s unforgettable Turn of Mind, then get yourself to a screening of the spectacular film A Separation, then check out the NPR report about a skin cancer drug that is working wonders on mice with Alzheimer’s. Then, and only then, pick up The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey … sometimes, timing really is everything.