The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray
Paul Lakeland July 28, 2011 - 5:54pm
If you know Walter Mosley for his series of Easy Rawlins stories, already an established classic of the mystery genre, be prepared to be very surprised by his latest novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Mosleys protagonist is a 91-year old semi-recluse who depends for his lifeline to the world on his nephew Reggie. When Reggie is suddenly out of the picture, the 18-year old Robyn steps in. At first she works on putting some order into the chaotic apartment where Ptolemy Grey is slowly but surely descending into dementia. As affection and even love grows between this unlikely pair, she helps the old man to an encounter with a doctor who offers him an experimental drug that will probably kill him but may, just may, give him a clear head once again, for at least a time. Mr. Grey accepts the offer and enters into a kind of Faustian bargain in reverse. In order to have two months to do some important stuff, at death his body but not his soul will belong to the doctor he insists on calling the Devil. The medicine works wonderfully well and things proceed apace while in dementia and in his new-found clarity, we move backwards and forwards in time as Mr. Grey tries to recall the past and right the wrongs of the present.You can read this book on a number of levels, though each I think is a variety of love story. There is the passionate but stormy love between Gray and his deceased wife, Sensia and the lower-key courtship in the present moment with his neighbor, Shirley Wring. The January/December love of Robyn and Mr. Gray is touching and tasteful. To her amusement she catches him looking admiringly at her legs, but he is wise enough to laugh at himself. As he says frequently, If you were twenty years older and I fifty years less Id ask you to be my wife and not a soul on this earth would have ever had it better. Its not easy to tell why Robyn takes the time with Mr. Gray that she does, because at least at first theres nothing in it for her. Put it down to compassion and human goodness, though Gray is a witty and thoughtful word-smith in his lucid moments and genuinely charming when the medicine does its job. But the most important of the loves is surely Grays attempt to recall and be loyal to the memory of Coydog McCann, a man he knew as a child who died violently but left Gray an inheritance and a task to accomplish. It is this half-remembered something that impels Gray to his bargain with the doctor, this and the frustrations of being on the verge of serious dementia, a state that Mosley sketches out with great persuasiveness. Yes, this must be how it is just before one falls over the cliff into the ocean of total miasma.Just as should be the case in romance, the last days of Ptolemy Gray are filled with love, generosity, grace and the thirst for justice. The element of violence is strongly present too, in the past of Coydog and in the present viciousness of one human being to another, but Grey triumphs over all of it and, we think, comes to his conclusion in peace with all the loose ends tied up. I confess that on first reading I hadnt noticed that the book begins with an Afterword that teases the reader and almost, but not quite, gives the story away. Lovers of Easy Rawlins surely suspect that his creator is more than usually wise for a mystery-story writer. Here, if you would like it in enormously entertaining form, is further proof.
About the Author
Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.