If you were beginning to sense the onset of dementia and had the chance to take a drug that would clear your mind for a short period of time but then cause your death, would you take it? Ninety-one-year-old Ptolemy Grey doesn’t hesitate when offered the chance because he knows he has something important he is supposed to do before he dies and needs to remember what it is. This short 2010 novel by Walter Mosley is a touching reflection on memory, history and what we owe the future.
Ptolemy lives alone in a rundown apartment in LA. His living conditions, like his mind, are cluttered, but it’s hard to know what is important to keep and what can be tossed aside. The old man spends his days locked inside with the radio and TV blaring, not taking care of his basic needs since his great grandnephew Reggie died. Other family members try to reach out to Ptolemy but he is resistant and untrusting of them. When visiting his niece, he meets a teenager named Robyn who makes a connection with the old man. With Robyn’s help, Ptolemy is able to unclutter his apartment and meet with Dr. Ruben, a “researcher” who would like to use Ptolemy as a subject in a secret and definitely not government approved study of a drug that is meant to help those suffering from dementia. Ptolemy knows that the drug will eventually kill him and Robyn tries to dissuade him from taking it, but Ptolemy wants to make this “deal with the devil.” Dr. Ruben can have Ptolemy’s body when he dies, and Ptolemy will use his last days to make things right with his past and with the future.
Much of this story revolves around “treasure.” Both Ptolemy and a character named Shirley Wring have precious objects of great monetary value, but each knows that those things are not what is really precious and of value in life. As Ptolemy takes the drug, he is able to go back into his past and remember the man who was so important to him in his childhood, Coydog McCann. Coydog, who met a tragic and horrifying end, left treasure behind for Ptolemy, and as we read about the relationship between these two characters, we see exactly what kind of gift this was, and Ptolemy remembers what it is he needs to do before he dies.
This is really a beautiful story even though it deals with the tragedy of dementia as well as the horrors of American history in regards to Black people. Ptolemy’s relationship with Robyn is central, as she represents the importance of the bond between elders and the young as well as that connection to the future. There are some interesting parallels between the Coydog/young Ptolemy relationship and the older Ptolemy/Robyn relationship. Ptolemy uses his time to prepare not so much for his own exit as for her future. It’s really beautifully done.
There are so many interesting details in this novel, such as the names of characters. Ptolemy’s last name is Grey, which is the color of brain matter and an indicator of uncertainty or lack of clarity. Robyn’s last name is Small, which she is, and Shirley Wring has a ring; Billy Strong is most certainly that. Dr. Ruben is a stand in for Satan in Ptolemy’s mind, and Dr. Ruben’s experiment on Ptolemy’s body reminded me of the many times in US history when Black people were used as guinea pigs in medical experiments. In this story, Ptolemy is aware of what is happening and agrees to the deal.
What struck me most, however, was Mosley’s depiction of dementia. He wrote this novel after watching his mother deteriorate from it, and the fear and sadness that go along with dementia are evident on every page. This description from Ptolemy’s point of view was especially striking:
“It’s like they’s a jailhouse in my mind … an’ I’m in the prison an’ they’s all these people I know outside yellin’ to me but I cain’t make out what they sayin’.”
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey has been made into a TV series for Apple TV starring Samuel L. Jackson and premiering in March. I am looking forward to that, but I think it’s absolutely worth it to read this extraordinary novel first.