After reading Kavan’s post last month, I picked up a copy of The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray, by Walter Mosley (c.2010 Riverhead/Penguin Books). I read only two pages and realized I was in the presence of a true master writer.
Kavan’s original post discussed the provocative plot twist in which the lead character, who has Alzheimer’s, is given the chance to try an experimental drug that will restore his mental clarity, but also lead to his death in 2 -3 months. While that alone is a topic worth long discussion, there is much more to the story—the nature of relationships (family and otherwise), a sense of duty and justice, our history of racism and class-ism, and throughout all, the wisdom of elders.
The first thing Mosley did infuriated me with its brilliance, because now I can never be the first person to think of it: I examined the cover, then opened the book and found that it was printed and bound upside down and backwards! Talk about changing perspectives!
But the use of language, the richness of both words and thoughts are what made me audibly inhale from time to time. He twists concepts inside-out to examine every angle, and in doing so helps us to understand that there are many ways to look at a word or an idea. In doing so, Mosley helps us to better understand the perspective of our elders, with and without dementia.
Here is an excerpt of Mosley’s writing that makes you stop and just shake your head. Ptolemy is remembering himself as 5-year old “Li’l Pea”, having one of many talks with his elder mentor and role model, “Coydog”. Read it slowly and enjoy the topsy-turvy sublimity of this single moment in time:
“You know everything,” Li’l Pea said to Coy one day, when Coy had told him about George Washington Carver and the peanut.
“No, child,” Coy said in a surprisingly gentle tone, “it’s you know more’n me.”
Li’l Pea giggled and said, “Me? I’on’t hardly know nuthin’.”
“That might be, but you still know more’n me.”
“Like what?” the child asked, not realizing the impossibility of his question.
“You know how crickets smell and what pebbles sound like when they fall on the ground around yo’ feet. You see deep in the sky without havin’ to look or think about it, and you love your mama an’ yo’ daddy so much that they would die if God took you from them.”
“Don’t you know all them things?” the boy asked, sobered by the seriousness of the old man’s words.
“Like a suit’a clothes,” Coydog said. “I got them things like a new suit just off the rack, but they fit you like skin.”
“I don’t get you Coy,” the boy said.
“The older you get the more you live in the past,” Coy intoned like a minister introducing his sermon. “Old man like me don’t have no first blue sky or thunderstorm or kiss. Old man like me don’t laugh at the taste of a strawberry or smell his own stink and smile. You right there in the beginnin’ when everything was new and true. My world is made outta ash and memories, broken bones and pain.
“Old man see the same things and walk the same roads he know so well he don’t even have to open his eyes to make his way. Right and wrong two sides’a the same coin for me, but for you there’s only right. Somebody say sumpin’ an’ you hear ‘em just like they say.”
“But what do you hear, Uncle Coy?”
“I hear everybody I evah knew talkin’ ‘bout things nobody know no more. I hear preachers an’ judges, white men and black. I hear ‘em talkin’ ‘bout tomorrow when I know that was a long time ago.”
Read this book.