A confession: twelve years ago, I passed up a Walter Mosley book because it did not sound like his usual edgy, sharply intelligent adventure. I love his honesty, his refusal to trade humanity for fancy flourishes. But I also love the characters: the lucid wit of Socrates Fortlow, the laidback sexiness of Easy Rawlins, the suspense as they work their connections on the streets of L.A….
This book, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, was anything but a noirish murder mystery. Its hero was ninety-one and living with dementia. So were the parents or husbands of several of my friends, and I shied away from the helplessness of it, the inability to enter their world or pull them back into ours.
Last week, though, I was missing Mosley, and I saw that The Last Days is now streaming—with Samuel L. Jackson, no less, as that ninety-one-year-old. No way was I going to disrespect Mosley, a consummate writer, by streaming before reading. I opened the book.
It is, indeed, a detective story, but the mystery lies inside Mr. Grey’s mind. Memories surface in fragments, bringing bits of wisdom from his boyhood hero, Coydog, and pain he would rather forget. His thoughts are a jumble, so he keeps classical music on the radio and news pouring from the tv 24/7. Now that his nephew has stopped coming around, those are his only points of connection with the outside world, but by using them to anchor himself, he turns their noise into another jumble, pieces of sound landing with a splash in his puddles of consciousness.
Mr. Grey’s home is a jumble, too, the stuff of his life now almost inextricable from the accumulated trash and filth. He cannot use his own bathroom; the plumbing stopped up long ago. Roaches animate his barely used kitchen.
This is the picture that confronts Robyn, a seventeen-year-old in need of shelter whose life has been even harder, in some ways, than Mr. Grey’s. I am calling him that because she does, conferring a dignity he never lost, only misplaced. As reality blurred and anything worth doing fell into the distant past, he let himself drift into a half-awake state that Mosley captures better than I thought possible.
Robyn’s warm, practical presence brings Mr. Grey back to himself. She tackles the bathroom first, then the piles of stuff, carefully showing him every object before it is either pitched or sorted. Pieces of his past falls from the objects as she raises them. Lives intersecting in a way neither could have predicted, the old man and young woman come to know one another.
She is beautiful, he tells her, in a way that is more than physical. “You the kinda pretty, the kinda beauty, that’s like a mirror. Men and women see themselves in you, only now they so beautiful that they can’t bear to see you go.”
Her long legs have also brought back—in a teasing, respectful, and entirely okay way—at least the memory of desire. He teases that were she older and he younger, he would marry her. But what unfolds instead is a father-daughter bond that goes a ways toward healing both of them.
Or at least, it heals Ptolemy Grey enough that he can ease back from the past into the present—and more important, the future. There is still a secret to be dealt with, and there are injustices to right before he dies. He needs to be the man he once was.
This is where the magic begins. Grey’s beloved grand-nephew is gone, he learns, shot dead in a crime. But before he died, he arranged for his great-uncle to meet with a doctor who has a possible cure for dementia.
The cure turns out to be experimental and dangerous. If it does not kill Grey instantly, it will give him back his mind for only a brief period and kill him afterward. Grey sees the doctor as the devil (and given the history of medical research on Black subjects, that is not nearly as superstitious as it sounds). But Grey knows he needs to solve his grand-nephew’s murder and provide for the boy’s children—and for Robyn. He would rather have his wits about him again, even for a brief time, than continue drifting, addled and frustrated and useless. He thinks of his important thoughts and memories not as vanished but as stored on the other side of a locked door—and he needs to find the key.
And so, he says yes to the devil doctor, consoling himself that because he has refused to take cash, he has held onto his soul in the bargain. Body raging with fever, brain crackling with electricity, he connects ideas, facts, motives, remembered snippets of speech. He figures out who killed his grand-nephew and why. He—does a long litany of things that would spoil your reading if I told you. Suffice it to say, he becomes remarkable again.
Reading this breathless, thrilling section, I feel wistful. Before I knew anyone with dementia, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, another book of magical realism, and watched people who knew they would all forget language run around taping the names of objects to their surfaces, only to forget what the letters meant. Ironically, I could not forget that passage. It helped me understand the cold dread of progressive diseases, and how you always know that the next day could steal even more from the person you love.
Mosley’s invention of a temporary cure is in some ways even worse, tantalizing because, couched in his plain and deft style, it feels so real. If such a treatment actually existed, who could resist bringing back, fully, the person they had once loved? Yes, their death would be hastened, but many of us would choose less time of better quality anyway. If we had the choice.
I steal a minute from the book to think about that miracle. My friend’s husband, quiet and wry and brilliant again. Another friend’s father, funny and sweet, able to summon that Irish gift of gab once more, and no longer describing his breakfast as “those rocks with the yellow goo in the middle and the three strips of meat” or refusing to flush the toilet lest he “break the house.”
If only, I sigh. And then I open an email about Washington University research projects and read about “a project that uses computer modeling and precise electric currents to promote an active, focused state of mind. Todd Braver, professor of psychological and brain sciences, and ShiNung Ching, associate professor of electrical and systems engineering, are investigating a treatment “that could one day help restore short-term memory in older adults and give a boost to others who struggle with memory and concentration.”
How on earth? The researchers have figured out how to develop—fast, in just a few minutes—a customized model of how a given individual’s brain thinks and processes and responds. Not the static images offered by fMRI, which have already taught us so much, but a dynamic model of a brain in action. The MINDy (Mesoscale Individualized NeuroDynamic model) shows how someone’s brain connects, when it rests, and how its signals fluctuate. That makes it possible to deliver slight, subtle pulses of electricity to the precise area of the brain that needs a little extra energy. Maybe to help the person focus, quiet their mind, or meditate; maybe to help them remember.
The impulses are gentle, just nudges in the right direction. No discomfort, no trauma, no chance of coercion. But an opportunity, if all goes well, to restore the sort of short-term memory someone had a decade earlier.
The line between magic and science grows softer and thinner by the day.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.