“Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take/To find dignity…” Bob Dylan
When Robyn, a young woman of seventeen, rekindles in ninety-one year old Ptolemy Grey, either consciously or subconsciously, the will to actively engage in life, the phrase, “Be careful what you ask for,” comes to mind.
Ptolemy’s brain is a jumbled mess of neurons, and the fuzziness of his inner mind is adeptly reflected in Walter Mosley’s prose. There are no chapters or definitive breaks in the storyline. Rather, the book is 277-pages of a third person account of Ptolemy – an African-American man – trying to connect episodes of his past and present in a way that actually makes sense of them.
Ptolemy lives in squalor in a Los Angeles neighborhood where local characters threaten the old man in search of his pension checks. The initial pages invite the reader to like, root for, and sympathize with Ptolemy, but as the story unfolds, the warts of all of the characters involved are revealed. The moral high ground is a mass of gray in this violent world in which survival is the only reality that matters.
Reggie is Ptolemy’s caretaker. He helps him cash his checks, buy groceries, and run errands. When he doesn’t show up for a matter of weeks, the reader eventually learns that he has been murdered. Through circumstance Ptolemy and Robyn forge a relationship. She takes him to see Dr. Ruben, whom Ptolemy refers to as the Devil. Ptolemy agrees to treatment with an experimental drug that will temporarily restore his clarity but ensure a rapid death.
In the weeks he has left, Ptolemy sets out on a quest to make sense of losses he endured throughout the various stages of his life: his loves – successful, unsuccessful, and unrequited; and, as he becomes more cogent, seeks to put his finances in order to take care of those he considers deserving of a mysterious and surprisingly significant estate.
But defying Father Time comes at a cost. Whatever the benefits for those that remain after Ptolemy departs, the reader is left at the end to wonder if the man who must inevitably slip back to his previous state is any better off than he was before and, for those inclined to consider such things, what might await him next.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Mosley’s depiction of the indignities of old age is heartbreaking, and Ptolemy’s grace and decency make for a wonderful character and a moving novel.” Publisher’s Weekly
“Simple survival is the greatest victory.” Bob Dylan
Note: Some readers with a long memory will see some parallels between this story and the film Charly based on the novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.