The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a ghetto variation of the Faust myth. An aged man makes a deal with the devil so that he may settle with the past. Ptolemy Grey is 91 and living in an unkempt South-Central Los Angeles apartment. He sleeps under the kitchen table, his toilet won’t flush and there’s a room populated by mice and roaches he won’t even enter. Being 91, Ptolemy has a lot to forget and his memory gives him trouble. He often can’t remember things. Often, he remembers at inopportune times.
Ptolemy is stoic about his condition. A nephew calls every few weeks to take him out to cash his pension check and buy groceries. Otherwise he’s alone, except for occasional visits from a drug-addicted woman who doesn’t mind beating up on him to get some money. When his nephew is killed in a drive-by, another less-compassionate relative stands in.
His life changes before his mind. At his nephew’s funeral, he meets Robyn, a 17-year old orphan who’s been taken in by Ptolemy’s extended family. Robyn cleans up the mess in his life and Ptolemy falls in love. “If you were twenty years older and I fifty less…” is a common refrain.
Ptolemy, forgetful as he is, is haunted by the past. Memories — often arriving as metaphor– flare up at odd moments. His life is consumed by incidents of regret; a fire in which he was helpless to save a friend, a down-home mentor, still whispering in his ear, who was hung, a beloved wife that died in his arms. The past is also treasure, the spoils of a “righteous crime” against racial injustice, hidden under his own floorboards.
With the best intentions, Robyn brings Ptolemy to a doctor who has an extreme treatment for dementia. “The Devil,” Ptolemy calls him. The Devil’s medicine ignites Ptolemy’s memory and brings fire to his veins. Without much life left, Ptolemy makes it his mission to do what he can do about those regrets as well as discover the reason for his nephew’s death.
The Rabbit’s often broken down Mosley’s novels into “detective” (Easy Rawlins series) and “serious” genres (The Man In My Basement, The Right Mistake). This book is a bit of both and something entirely different as well. The care that Mosley takes to create the fragile, vulnerable Ptolemy Grey is an insightful look into our own aging (and the miserable conditions we condemn them to as social programs are withdrawn). Mosley grants glances into Ptolemy’s crippled consciousness and the distinct change it makes under the doctor’s medication. The mysteries resolved here are done with soul-searching and a little sleuthing. That Ptolemy unravels the cloth of his nephew’s “random” killing give the book a taste of Mosely’s mystery skills. The Last Days is equally touching and engaging, balanced with humor and full of personal revelation. It’s framing lessons, as Mosley so often states them, are centered on the black experience but universal in their message. The question here is not so much who can refuse the devil when he comes calling, but who can refuse love?–Cabbage Rabbit