By probing the mind and heart of a man in extreme old age, Walter Mosley has produced what might be his most daring novel yet. Consider this: How many novels have you read lately that are about a very old person whose mind is fading and failing? Even if a few titles come to mind, you probably can’t think of one that is also a passionate and unorthodox love story—and that love story is what’s at the heart of the remarkable novel The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.
Ptolemy Grey is an obscure old man who lives in a cluttered and filthy apartment in a rundown part of Los Angeles. Reggie, his great-grand-nephew—or maybe his great-great-grandnephew; such is the confusion when you’ve lived so long and have such an extended family—looks in on him now and then. When Reggie is gunned down in a drive-by shooting, he is replaced by Robyn, the teenage girl Reggie’s mother has taken in. After that, every single thing in Ptolemy’s life changes. Simply, Robyn gives the lonely and befuddled old man a reason to live. It’s not enough that she fearlessly cleans up his vermin-infested apartment, but she also takes him to a doctor whose wonder drug restores his memory. This semi-miracle comes with a cost, as the drug renders him occasionally comatose and besieges his frail body with raging fevers. But with Ptolemy’s revived memory comes a sense of purpose and responsibility that he’d long forgotten, and a deep, mostly platonic love (they’re not above some innocent flirting) that grows between him and Robyn.
Mosley is masterful in bringing these characters to life, especially Ptolemy, whose restored memories bring back scenes from a childhood that was both idyllic and horrific—he was a young black child raised in the deep South in the early part of the 20th century. The much younger Robyn is almost as well-drawn; she has her loving heart despite a childhood that was far from perfect.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, so life-affirming and compassionate, is one of the best novels this reviewer has ever read. Whether you are young or old, male or female, it will likely become one of your favorites, too.