Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be inside the mind of an elderly person with dementia? In The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, Walter Mosley gives us a glimpse of the horrors of cognitive loss. The opening pages of Mosley’s new novel are sure to go down as one of the best representations of dementia in fiction. Ptolemy Grey is an elderly man in Los Angeles who has to rely on his relatives to help him get food, go to the bank, and avoid being mugged. His apartment is a cacophony of 24-hour news coverage and classical music radio, and most of his apartment is inaccessible due to accumulated garbage, rats and bugs. Ptolemy’s external life mirrors his internal confusion, and one can’t help but look at him with anything other than pity-a fact echoed by his relatives who refer to him as “Pity Papa.”
Life begins to change for Ptolemy when his nephew, Reggie, fails to come for him one day. Instead, another nephew, Hilly, comes for him. Ptolemy is reluctant to follow him, but finally trusts him. Hilly steals from him, which Ptolemy is aware enough to recognize. The next time Hilly comes, Ptolemy accuses him, but he allows him to take him over to his niece’s house. It turns out that Ptolemy has been brought to her house for Reggie’s funeral. Ptolemy’s static life seems to be in disarray, but it is through this confusion Robyn enters his life and begins to clean it up. Robyn is a distant relative and teenager, but she immediately begins to take care of Ptolemy, starting by cleaning up his apartment. Ptolemy immediately begins to rely on her, and they develop a love that Ptolemy notes would have been perfect if he were 50 years younger and Robyn were 20 years older.
Robyn eventually gets Ptolemy to see a doctor. The doctor offers him an experimental and illegal treatment if Ptolemy will donate his body when he dies. Ptolemy sees this as a deal with the devil, but he takes the chance at clarity in order to set his life in order and to take care of Robyn and the children that Reggie’s death left behind. How Ptolemy does this is the mystery of the story, so I won’t give it away here. Suffice it to say that Ptolemy’s long history and memories of a childhood mentor named Coydog bring about a satisfactory ending to the novel.
Mosley’s writing in this novel is crisp and full of dialog, both internal and external. As I noted earlier, his strongest writing is at the beginning of the book, and I can’t help but feel that the book suffers a bit when Ptolemy gets clarity in his mind back. Nevertheless, the portraits Mosley draws of the other characters and the relationships he chart make this a very good novel.