"....few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into [her] heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memories to which, sooner or later - no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover or how much we learn or forget - we will return." -Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray is life itself

I'm not secretive about my love for Walter Mosley.  I love him.  I love him.  I love him.  So, one might be inclined to believe that I love everything about him.  Au contraire, mon frere.  Like any good relationship, my love for Walter Mosley means I have to take the good with the bad.  I have not loved everything he has written.  In fact, a couple of his books bothered me so much that I considered breaking up with him. 

Fortunately, I did not act hastily and I wrote off Killing Johnny Frye and Diablerie as some very annoying habits that I decided I could live with.  I'm not going to try to change him; I'm just going to accept him, flaws (and Johnny Fryes) and all.  Today, our relationship is not only intact, it is stronger than ever.

Case in point, his latest work: The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray. Ptolemy Gray has a secret. It has to do with a pirate, his treasure and the location of a whole lot of buried gold.  Unfortunately, ninety-one year old Ptolemy can't quite remember where the treasure is buried, or if it is even real, for that matter.

When we meet Ptolemy, he has seen better days.  His memory and reasoning skills are failing him.  He has lost everyone he has loved. To keep his feelings of loss at bay, he cocoons himself inside his home with all the stuff he has collected throughout his lifetime. His apartment is not a pleasant place, though. The plumbing doesn't work and it is stuffed to the gills with trash and mementos. But what's really tripping him up is that he can never be sure where he is and whether he's merely dreaming about the past or actually reliving it.  For Ptolemy, things have gone a bit haywire on the time-space continuum.

The only way Ptolemy gets by is a great-grand nephew that visits a few times a week to take him food shopping and use the toilet in a nearby diner.  As the story opens, this young man is murdered.  Ptolemy suddenly feels a connection to the outside, present-day world that he has not felt for the last few decades.  He feels responsible for bringing peace to his nephew's soul by finding his killer.  He must also find that treasure so he can take care of his nephew's family.

Ptolemy's only hope of making sense of all the memories, feelings and facts floating around in his head is a doctor he's heard about.  He meets with the doctor and enters into a classic Faustian bargain.  If Ptolemy takes the doctor's drugs, he will regain clarity, understanding, memory and reasoning.  He will also be dead within a week, and the doctor will take possession of Ptolemy's body for scientific research. Ptolemy decides that finding the treasure is worth his soul, so he goes for it.

What the reader experiences next is Ptolemy's journey through past and present, in which love, loyalty, justice and intellect don't need to conform to a linear construct of time. They just are, as we just are.  Through Ptolemy's odyssey, the reader has the opportunity to drink in the very meaning of life.

Does Ptolemy find the treasure?  Does good win out over evil?  Does the devil take Ptolemy Gray's soul? If you know Mr. Mosley, you can probably guess that the answer is not a simple yes or no, but somewhere in the "Gray"ish middle.

I love Walter Mosley, I loved The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray and I love side-stepping the time-space continuum, if only for a couple hundred pages.

What are your favorite tales of Faustian bargains?  What did you learn from them?

Photo Credit: David Shankbone