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Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011

Walter Mosley's Redemption Quest

Famed author to appear at benefit for Woodland Pattern

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Imagine Walter Mosley standing at the proverbial crossroads where Robert Johnson legendarily sold his soul to the devil for blues genius. But Mosley's crossroads also intersect with poor and middle-class black America. His talent, prolific versatility and insight have made him a beacon for race relations in contemporary America.

Hip, young, multicultural writers like Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat and Colson Whitehead sing his praises. He's had his words translated into 23 languages and won an O. Henry Award, PEN America's Lifetime Achievement Award and a Grammy for liner notes to a Richard Pryor CD anthology. Upcoming is a TV series based on his latest detective character, Leonid McGill.

Mosley also writes sci-fi and children's fiction and contributes to The Nation, but he's best known for the Easy Rawlins detective series, which included a movie adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress. Rawlins explored black life in post-World War II Los Angeles; Mosley is now zeroing in on contemporary New York with the newest McGill book, When the Thrill Is Gone. He also recently published Twelve Steps Toward Political Revelation, a bracing meditation on America.

But Mosley will primarily focus on the novel The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, out in paperback this month, when he appears at The Hamilton (823 E. Hamilton St.) 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18, in a fund-raiser for Woodland Pattern Book Center.

A 91-year-old black man, Ptolemy Grey is revitalized by 17-year-old Robyn, a homeless family friend who virtually saves him from squalor, encroaching dementia and his own secrets and demons. Grey recalls Mosley's Socrates Fortlow, an ex-killer who redeemed himself and others as a fearless street sage, and Soupspoon Wise, the dying former Robert Johnson sideman whose story is transcribed by a young “angel of mercy” in R.L's Dream.

Mosley has commented: “Language is more the building block for culture and civilization than biology is.” To wit, Grey regains crucial acumen and memory with Robyn's aid. Grey recalls an older man named Coydog McCann, who held dark secrets as well. McCann had liberated young Ptolemy from black-victim mentality: “God don't care what they did to you. What he care about is what you did.”

Amid a web of danger and greed, Robyn (a complex embodiment of love, empowerment and desire) remains Grey's sole living connection to his humanity. He straddles the dream world and reality, encountering the shape-shifting manner of truth and understanding. Grey finds his deepest purpose in his inevitable last days.
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