Lowboy is off his meds, out of the hospital, and on the loose. Acclaimed author John Wray’s third novel chronicles this teen’s quest to save the world and pens an ode to New York City’s underground in the process.
William Heller (aka Lowboy) is a paranoid schizophrenic who believes that the world will end due to global warming in only a few short hours. Heller feels he can stop this warming by releasing the world inside him — which, of course, can only be accomplished by getting laid. Meanwhile, Lowboy’s mother, Violet, is working with a detective to find her son. While Violet wants to stop her son from harming himself, Detective Lateef is more concerned about stopping Lowboy from hurting someone else.
Lowboy travels underground, preferring the subway and its tunnels to life on the streets. As Lowboy tries to avoid Skull and Bones, two truant officers who patrol the subway, he also seeks to find Emily. Prior to his hospitalization, as we will eventually learn, Lowboy’s unique outlook attracted him to Emily, another misunderstood teen with problems of her own. Emily’s problems, however, were more typical of teenage angst, and Lowboy’s all-too-real problems eventually drove them apart.
Lowboy thinks that reuniting with Emily is essential in order for him to save the world, but even as he believes this, the reader knows Lowboy can’t solve his problems that easily. Lowboy races to find Emily just as Violet races to find her son, and these two narratives unwind in short, fast-paced sections. These short sections, combined with relatively simple prose, makes Lowboy, on the surface, an easy read. Don’t get too comfortable, though: at times, the reader struggles to translate Lowboy’s altered reality as he sinks beneath the weight of his delusions. His distorted reality is as unreal to the reader as it is to Lowboy, and in these moments both the reader and Lowboy struggle to make sense of his delusions, as in this subway scene:
As soon as his eyes came open he regretted it. The objects around him flickered for an instant before coming clear, as though he’d caught them by surprise, and their outlines began to twitch and run together. Oh no, he thought. The argon lights were stuttering like pigeons. There was some kind of intelligence behind them. He tried to convince himself that what he saw made no difference, that it was none of his business, but it was too late to convince himself of anything. He clutched at the bench, breathing in little sucks, and forced himself to look things in the eye…Everything was as it should have been, inanimate and still. Even the people waiting for the train seemed perfectly assembled and composed; but that was wrong again. It was as though he’d caught a glimpse behind the curtain in a theater, behind the canvas backdrop and the props, and though the play was a good one he couldn’t forget about the ropes and pulleys. You should have expected this to happen, he said to himself.
As the novel progresses, Lowboy’s delusions worsen, and the novel climaxes in an unforgettable scene of great power and tragedy. The novel’s fast pacing propels the reader forward from the opening pages, and putting Lowboy down quickly becomes nearly impossible. The pacing of the narrative is Lowboy’s greatest strength, along with Wray’s insight into schizophrenia. Many critics have praised Wray’s ability to capture the mind of a schizophrenic, and I have to agree with them. As Lowboy descends further into his delusions, readers can easily imagine how powerfully crippling such a disease must be.
While Lowboy is a satisfactory read overall, there were a few elements that didn’t sit right with me. The biggest issue is the great “mystery” surrounding Violet Heller. This mystery — which is finally revealed at the end of the novel — is obvious from almost the beginning, yet it takes the detective working with her almost 200 pages to figure it out. However, this issue, along with a few plot points that could have been better clarified, does not detract from the overall experience of the novel. Granta named Wray as one of the best young American novelists of 2007, and, after reading Lowboy, it’s easy to see why.
Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.