Saturday, January 8, 2011

2010 Top 10: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

Eighth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
by Walter Mosley
He only had one chair, and that had a book, a glass of water, and three stones he’d found that day at the park on it. They were blond stones, a color he’d never seen in rock and so he picked them up and brought them home, to be with them for a while.
That’s exactly why I read Walter Mosley -- to “be awhile” with his characters, whose situations and moral complexities I always think I haven’t seen, and whose unfamiliarity always softens into a fond recognition.

Here it’s 2006 and 91-year-old Ptolemy Grey lives alone in squalor in south-central LA. He has a small pension, he has a radio and a TV tuned 24/7 to a dueling background of classical music and cable news, and he has sporadic contact with extended family two and three generations down the line. But his home and mind have declined since his wife died decades ago, and now dementia keeps him obsessed about the ages-ago deaths of a childhood friend in a house fire and the lynching of a beloved mentor. So when another loved one dies in street violence, and a new young friend awakens Ptolemy's spirit, he embarks on a mission to protect his loved ones before his own time comes.

Mosley narrates almost completely in scenes here -- from Ptolemy’s perspective, a mix of confusion and distraction co-mingled with vestiges of philosopher and keen observer. A key plot point about experimental drugs approaches magical realism and requires a suspension of disbelief ... or maybe it just required me to fully enter a world where the rules don’t resemble the ones I know, and to appreciate the point of this book: being awhile with this man in that world. I loved every page of it.

Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher

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