Last Days of Ptolemy Grey – Review
Publisher: Riverhead Books, Penguin Group 375 Hudson St, NY,NY
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 6/4/2011
Summary: Ninety-one year old Ptolemy Grey gets a chance to reshape the lives of those around him with the help of a miracle drug.
If you have read Ralph Ellison’s 1953 novel INVISIBLE MAN or Richard Wright’s 1940 novel NATIVE SON, then you are familiar with the texture of THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY. Distinctly American literature which explores the inner voice of people on the fringe. The irony of course is that we are all, readers and authors alike, on the fringe which may explain why there are so many novels floating around. The fringe is a solitary place. Unless you also have purpose. THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY examines a life with purpose, minor though the purpose may be.
THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY is comforting in its exploration. The story is of a ninety-two year old black man, Ptolemy Grey, who is teetering on the edge of oblivion. Mind, body and spirit are fading quickly when we first encounter him. Two events happen which alters the terrain of the precipice from which Mr. Grey is about to fall. The terrain goes from life with seemingly no purpose to life with purpose. A minor adjustment. But as in most engrossing literature, it is the minor adjustments from which truly memorable stories emerge.
Having sunk into the lethargic valley of inevitable death, Grey is aroused from his daily routine of twenty-four hour TV-news and classical radio background noise by the death of Reggie, his primary contact with life as most of us know it. It is at this turning point in Grey’s predictable existence that the author takes us into the mind of Ptolemy Grey. We suspect that we already know this mind. It is an extraordinary journey where superficial, first-glance expectations are confirmed. A mind straining against the groping tendrils of senility or alzheimer’s; focusing on the internal dialog which is more real than any external noise of voices and reason, including twenty-four hour news and classical music. We easily come to see how the external world is merely background noise occasionally intruding on Ptolemy Grey’s reality. Beyond our expectations of course is the real Ptolemy Grey. Emotions wrapped in memories. The trick for the author is to make these emotions our emotions. The author does this by exposing the core of Ptolemy Grey. Not a hero, not a monster. A fringe character like the rest of us.
We learn through Grey’s memories that the death of Reggie is the latest bump in his ninety odd years of life. He has experienced the unusual death of his childhood mentor, Coydog McCann (who was hanged by a lynch mob); the death of his faithless but much loved wife, Sensie. On the other side of this particular bump is Hilly, Grey’s great-nephew. And there is the eighteen-year old Robyn who is an orphan taken in by Hilda Brown, mother of Reggie and Hilly. For Grey, Hilly, a fringe character like himself, is a known. Robyn on the other hand is something new and like other bumps in his life, it is the newness of Robyn that pulls him out of his lethargy and onto an unanticipated and new path in life.
There is in these stories–great American stories we will call them–a sense of the spiritual, a sense of the mythical with a distinctly American twist. The classic example of course is the 1937 Faustian short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, Daniel Webster and the Devil. The devil in THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY shows up, fittingly, in the form a miracle drug that allows Grey to slip back into everyday reality. It is here that the novel achieves the big question.
In its totality, THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY shows us that society really does not need heroes, only people willing to take responsibility for their little slice of reality. Even on the fringe. Especially on the fringe, in the day to day frenzy of simply trying to survive. Owning it. Fear, conflict, love and hatreds-owning all of it and maybe smoothing the path for those that follow. For Ptolemy Grey, a wrong committed some eighty years before can, to his thinking, be ameliorated by one simple act of kindness. For the young eighteen year old Robyn, there is only the responsiblity of the moment and she grabs it with unabashed daring. But the question is whether in seventy or so years, she will simply be another Ptolemy Grey?
THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY is great reading.