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The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

In Walter Mosley's new book, one man trades his life for clarity.

"When you get old," says the 91-year-old hero of Walter Mosley's latest novel, "you begin to understand that no one talks unless someone listens, and no one knows nuthin' 'less somebody else can understand." It's a tidy summing-up of a theme that Mosley explores throughout this deeply moving story of aging and loss. In the changing and often confusing world that pensioner Ptolemy Grey inhabits, he must fight to make himself heard.

As the novel opens, we find Ptolemy living a timid, cloistered life in South Central Los Angeles, afraid to venture outside alone. He's sinking into dementia, and Ptolemy's mind, like his apartment, is becoming a jumble of memories accrued over the course of his long life. "Too many names were moving around in Ptolemy's mind," Mosley writes. "That's how Ptolemy imagined the disposition of his memories, his thoughts: they were still his, still in the range of his thinking, but they were, many and most of them, locked on the other side of a closed door that he'd lost the key for. So his memory became like secrets held away from his own mind. But these secrets were noisy things; they babbled and muttered behind the door, and so if he listened closely he might catch a snatch of something he once knew well."

Those snatches are often troubling. Memories of hard times, violence, and racism swirl through his head, along with a dull yearning for his adored wife, now long gone, and a strangely persistent tug of unfinished business. Only his great-nephew Reggie keeps Ptolemy tethered to the present, taking him to the grocery store, cashing his pension checks for him, and reminding him to eat. When Reggie is slain in a drive-by shooting, Ptolemy appears to have lost his sole anchor to reality.

At Reggie's funeral, however, Ptolemy meets 17-year-old Robyn, a bright spark whose eyes "saw things that he wanted to see." Robyn takes it upon herself to care for Ptolemy, pulling him back into the world and igniting a desire to confront the troubling questions that surround the death of his great-nephew. Before he can move forward, however, Ptolemy must find a way to cut through the fog of his own dementia. "I know how a man could lose his mind," Ptolemy says, "but how do he find it again?"

The answer, he discovers, lies with a dangerous experimental drug that will bring Ptolemy the mental clarity he desires, but at the cost of a dramatically shortened life: He won't live to see his next birthday. As he signs his life away to an unscrupulous doctor, Ptolemy recognizes this "bargain" for the Faustian exchange it is: "Ptolemy raised his head; staring into [the doctor's] beady green eyes, he realized with a shock that he was staring into the face of the Devil."

Even so, the medicine begins to do its work, persuading Ptolemy that he's getting the better end of the deal. "For a moment Ptolemy understood that the doctor's medicine had made him into many men from out of all the lives he had lived through the decades," Mosley writes. "It was certainly a Devil's potion, one that could give him the power to relive his mistakes and failures and change, if only slightly, the past events that hounded his dreams."

Who among us, the author seems to be asking, wouldn't strike this bargain?

Walter Mosley, though best known for his popular "Easy Rawlins" detective novels, has always resisted easy categorization. His work ranges freely over many genres and styles — crime, literary mainstream, science fiction and social commentary, to name a few. (He's also said to be working on a biography of pioneering African American chemist Percy Julian.) The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, his 30th novel, finds Mosley at the height of his imaginative faculties, focusing his restless intelligence on the quandaries of growing old, and creating an unflinching portrait of a man who, even as his mind betrays him, keeps a firm grip on his dignity.

Two-time Edgar Award winner Daniel Stashower is completing a biography of Allan Pinkerton.