By Carolyn See
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 7:06 PM
THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY
By Walter Mosley
Riverhead. 277 pp. $25.95
For years I've thought that Walter Mosley, having created the incomparable Easy Rawlins, the coolest private detective in all of American literature, should just stick to Easy, and give us all the exquisite gift of that hero's wit and style every two years. A terrific series like that would be more than enough for most writers, a marvelous lifetime accomplishment.
But Mosley had other plans, evidently, and besides the 11 "Easy" books we have so far, he's given us two Leonid McGill mysteries, 17 other works of fiction and four pieces of nonfiction, including "What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace."
World Peace! Obviously, Mosley is not hampered by lack of ambition, the rules of any genre or the rules of reality that govern this planet (some of his works come under the heading of science fiction or fantasy). He's playing by his own rules, and the instrument he uses is a prose style so sweet that sometimes you can't believe that you - cynical, grown-up person that you are - are actually reading these charming tales.
That's the reason we miss Easy Rawlins when a new book about him doesn't show up for a few years: Whoever heard of a private detective, working out of a very scary neighborhood, that you want to invite into your kitchen for cookies and milk? Imagine setting out Oreos for Sam Spade? It would never happen. Paradoxically, it's this very sweetness that makes fear, death and loneliness so appalling when they issue from Mosley's pen.
Fear, loneliness and death are the constant companions of Ptolemy Grey, 91 years old, living in a filthy Los Angeles apartment where squadrons of mice use the floor as a playground and the toilet hasn't been flushed in more than a decade. Try being Ptolemy, who some time ago began to lose track of who he is or where he's come from; who plays opera 24 hours a day on public radio and keeps the television news going full blast at all times to create some semblance of reality even as he crumbles from despair.
Ptolemy relies on a few family members to come around every once in a while to take him to the grocery store and the bank. His great-nephew, Reggie, a nice enough guy, has been doing this for a while, but he certainly doesn't put his heart into it. For Reggie, Ptolemy is just a chore that his mom makes him do.
Reggie - like most of us, probably - can't see Ptolemy's real situation. The old man is paralyzed with fear. Losing his memory isn't bad enough; he's been beaten and repeatedly robbed by a dope addict who pushes right into his room and takes change from the coffee can where he keeps his money. Then another relative - a hulking, brutish thug named Hilly - steals Ptolemy's pension checks. Things get so bad that a strange woman in his bank asks him to help pay her phone bill. He ends up paying twice what she asked for.
Okay, these circumstances are too heartbreaking; they can't go on. At a family funeral, confused old Ptolemy meets a strong, decent young woman named Robyn, who's been casually taken in by Reggie's mom.
They are part of a society that has gone steadily downhill for over a century. Ptolemy can remember times when everybody knew each other, houses were kept up and everyone went dancing. But things have gotten much worse since he was young. Now, as far as he can see, everything has been lost. "Terrible," is all Ptolemy can say, when he visits Reggie's neighborhood: Homes "falling in on themselves from the ravages of termites, faltering foundations, and general rot."
Ptolemy lives by the words of Coydog, his old mentor who stole a treasure trove back in the day from an evil white man whose ancestors had owned the lot of them. Coydog got lynched for his defiance, but before that, he gave his treasure to young Ptolemy, who has kept it hidden for a lifetime. The whole book - the whole allegory here - is built on the idea of thievery and the underlying desperation that usually causes it.
Because this story is a fantasy, Robyn, that pretty young girl, is able to clean up both Ptolemy's room and his life. I'm not giving away the ending by saying that those who abused him get their just reward. The plot, the pure sweetness and believability of this story, comes from the romance that springs up between the 17-year-old girl and the 91-year-old man, as together they create a world where nothing can be stolen, only given, with the limitless generosity of love.
See reviews books regularly for The Post.