Most depictions of dementia describe the impact of behavior and cognitive deficits from the outside – the observations of clinicians, family members, co-workers, and neighbors. It is rare to find a perspective from the inside out – the experience of the person with advanced dementia. A mystery novel is an unlikely place to look for such a portrayal, yet Walter Mosley’s recent novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey creates that perspective convincingly.
A prolific writer, Mosley is best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, set in Los Angeles in the 1940s, and for his lively and authentic portrayal of African-American urban life. This book has Mosley’s characteristic earthy dialogue, colorful people, and plot twists. But the main character-cum-detective, Ptolemy Usher Grey, is no Easy Rawlins. He is 91 years old, suffering from dementia, and living in squalor. That is, until an unlikely caregiver, 17-year-old Robyn Small, literally gets him to clean up his act.
Mosley wrote this book after his 88-year-old mother Ella died of dementia. He was a long-distance caregiver for seven years. In an interview in the Wall Street Journal he said that one of the things he attempted to do in his book “is to show the narrative that exists inside [Ptolemy Grey’s] mind, to see those moments when someone is trying to tell you something and they still can’t do it . . .that struggle for articulation. That’s a very human struggle.”
As Mosley sees it, Ptolemy has a “place behind the door that kept many of his memories alive but mostly unavailable.” Shadows of the past keep intruding on the present, where he lives amid nonstop classical music and news on the radio, a dwindling supply of canned sardines, and fear of intruders.
The complicated plot, which involves past injustices, buried treasure, failed relationships, and violence, turns on the drive-by shooting of Ptolemy’s grandnephew Reggie, the only one of his large but uninvolved family who had helped him do some shopping and banking. At Reggie’s funeral Robyn, who has no family but has been taken in by Ptolemy’s grandniece, takes special care of Ptolemy. The family then sends her to assume Reggie’s role.
Robyn does much more than Reggie ever did, and her kind but firm presence gives Ptolemy the human connection and stability – the love – that is missing in his life. It also gives him a mission: find out who killed Reggie and take care of unfinished business before he dies.
In a Faustian twist, a physician offers Ptolemy a chance to recover his lost memory and lucidity. Dr. Ruben (henceforth called the Devil) is testing a new drug that he thinks will give Ptolemy a few months of clear-headedness but will kill him before he reaches 92. In a macabre version of informed consent, Dr. Ruben openly says the drug is dangerous and illegal in the United States but is being made in “a town in Southeast Asia where there are fewer laws governing research.” Over Robyn’s protests, Ptolemy chooses a few months of “getting his mind back” and signs a form giving his body to the doctor after he dies. No spoilers here: read the book to find out what happens.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a work that blends realism and fantasy. It is also a tribute to the powerful impact of a caregiver on the final chapter of a person’s life.