In the Soul and Shoes of a Man with Dementia (my review of Walter Mosely’s THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY)

ptolemy grey

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THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GRAY IS THE THIRD Walter Mosley novel I’ve read and it didn’t disappoint. Mosley weaved the story of Ptolemy, a 91 year old man that suffers from dementia. The way he writes the prose put me right inside Ptolemy’s dank, ratty, roach infested apartment with papers cluttered, the toilet that “wouldn’t work,” where Ptolemy slept on the floor because he couldn’t get to the bed. I’ll be honest. Walter’s descriptions of this place were so repulsing it was hard to read at times. Seriously, I found myself holding my nose because I could almost smell the stench. Poor Poppa Gray, as they called him. He was an old man with fair physical ability for his age. But his mind was bad. He couldn’t remember things that he needed to remember. He couldn’t form cohesive thoughts. And right when he needed him the most, his nephew Reggie was gunned down in a driveby leaving Ptolemy to fend for himself in a world where people stole from him, and hounded him for money. In a world where he was a victim of advanced years and time that stood still.

The novel starts out with Ptolemy’s letter to Robin, his great grandniece, even though she was no relation. This is important since Ptolemy speaks of marrying her. Their relationship is sweet and layered as Walter paints how an old man would react to a sweet young thing living in his place. He doesn’t react as most would think and her showing up spawns a set of events that drive the novel. Like Ptolemy being able to access his mind so he can take care of that…that…thing he can’t seem to remember. And maybe even find out what really happened to Reggie.

From Devil in a Blue Dress, to the Fearless Jones novels to every mystery that Walter writes, you get those gritty, down and dirty LA streets where the divide between the haves and have nots, and racial, economic and social gaps are fused. The prose, as always, is authentic and colorful. He weaves a story well and eases the reader into the thick of things before they even realize it. There’s that slick sense of jive. The rhythm that sets your foot to tap as you read no matter whether the period is the fifties or later. For Ptolemy, it was later and Mosley does an awesome job of displaying the out of touch feeling Ptolemy has. Like he can’t get through to the boisterous Hilly; the chasm of time and charm is just too great. Or his appreciation for Robin’s true beauty. He appreciates and respects her on a level that men (proper men anyway) respected young women back in the day. Long before the saggy pants, female dog days where women are seldom treasured—and seem to thrive on being taken for granted.

Perhaps the greatest theme for me was putting the reader in the soul and shoes of an elderly man, who through slips in the cords of consciousness, is living in several time periods simultaneously. He talks to Coy Dog McCann like he’s back in that time. Cinsy too. And they feel like current characters in the novel. Perhaps they are. It begs the question of what time is anyway. Aren’t people always a part of you no matter when they happened upon your life? It’s up to you to either ignore their voices or put your ear close to the cool window of eternity and take a listen. Reading about Ptolemy made me think about my great grandfather, Odell (the man was old as Methuselah when I met him and didn’t change much over our time together). We called him Pa Pa, and me, he called me Jim (the only person I allowed to call me that because, hey, the dude was old).

I stayed with Pa Pa one summer. One hot summer because he didn’t believe in air conditioning. We’d sit on the porch and he would chew snuff and tell me stories about when he was young. His memory was remarkable. Astoundingly remarkable. He aged gracefully and we were grateful for that. My wife’s grandfather, William Cooley, is getting on up there in age himself. When visiting her hometown, I sat and listened to him talk about the old days and the unconventional way he got his middle name. The imagination of folks back then. Perhaps they wanted to remember a certain period so they etched that memory on a new born baby boy. Call his name; remember when the city was under Marshall Law. But my wife’s grandfather remembered things. Times. People. Conversations. Neither William nor Odell suffered from dementia, a devastating disease that cripples even a perfectly good working body and leaves them prey to whatever elements arise. I worked with a woman whose mother suffers from it. She can’t be left alone. She’s likely to walk into the middle of the street or lose herself in a world that is becoming less loving and less aware. I once worked with another woman who (when she retired) hugged me and kissed my cheek. Now, dementia has stolen the memory of me. She wouldn’t hug me now because I’m a stranger to her. A strange fellow in a confusing environment. It’s heartbreaking.

Now here’s the rub. Reading THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GRAY, a work of fiction, stirred up those emotions in me. Made me want to research the start of it. Find ways to help the study of it. And isn’t that what a book (whether fiction or non-fiction) should do? Tug at your heart while entertaining you? Cause you to think and reflect? Walter Mosley poured some reality in this novel. It did much more than entertain me. It made me think. It made me remember.

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