LOWBOY by John Wray

Book Quote:

“I don’t want to hear anything. I want not to be hearing. I want everyone to shut their mouth already. Uhhh—
Who’s there, Will? Who’s everyone? Can you tell me that?
Uhhh. You know who.
I don’t know, Will. I want you to tell me.
You know who. You know who. I stopped taking my meds.
Your meds are the only way to shut them up though, aren’t they? I talked to you about that. You made me a promise. Remember the promise you made to me, Will? Remember what Dr. Flesig—
They shut up too much with the meds. It gets quiet. It all gets so flat. ”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Poornima Apte (JUL 26, 2009)

The action in John Wray’s absolutely breathtaking novel, Lowboy, all unfolds over the course of one single November day. Seventeen-year-old William Heller, a schizophrenic, escapes from his institution, goes off his meds and embarks on a mission to prevent global warming from totally annihilating the world.

Will—who likes to go by the moniker Lowboy because of his fascination with the underground—believes the end of the world is merely hours away. And the only way to prevent this imminent catastrophe, Lowboy believes, is for him to lose his virginity. To this end, he steadily moves toward finding the one girl who showed a modicum of sympathy and interest toward him at his old school: Emily.

Will flits from one train to the other on New York’s subway system in first trying to reach Emily and then in escaping from the authorities who are out to stop him before he turns violent. Ali Lateef, a “green” car-driving, puzzle-loving detective, is on staff at the Missing Persons Unit and hopes Will’s mother, Violet, will lead him to her son before he hurts people. As it turns out, Will was institutionalized precisely because of an earlier violent episode that involved his friend, Emily. Violet, of course, only wants her son safe and hopefully, cured of his psychotic episodes.

Lowboy is a marvel of a book utterly compelling in its narrative and its voice. Wray, whose research for the book has been exhaustive, takes the reader into the mind of a schizophrenic teen extremely effectively. The simplest of phrases and situations speak volumes. He refers to the institution as “the school,” for example—not merely “school” as most teens his age would. This one simple word beautifully captures the teen’s situation caught in the ravages of a disease he has no escape from. When he is off his meds, he simply can’t interact with society, there are too many voices in his head. On the other hand, when he is on the meds, he feels like he is being pressed under glass. In a spectacularly written situation, Will tries to buy cupcakes for Emily. Such an act that most people would have no trouble executing, proves to be extremely trying for the troubled teen—his interactions with the clerk and eventually the way he makes peace with the situation—is wonderfully rendered by Wray.

“He decided to get out at Columbus Circle. To his surprise it happened very simply. He stood up and guided himself into the funnel of exiting bodies, feeling the space around him compress like air into a jet, and let himself be spat onto the platform. The people around him never pitched or stumbled. It’s only when you think about things that they get hard to do, he thought,” Wray writes of Will’s experience on the subway. This precise description, early on in the book, leads the reader slowly into a mind where even the most mundane of tasks must be worked slowly through with the utmost concentration. You must focus on guiding yourself “through the funnel of exiting bodies” so that you can get to where you are going.

The author has said that he wrote much of the book on New York’s subways and Lowboy sets this underground mood and the comings and goings of these sleek, efficient machines, wonderfully. “Its [the train’s] ghost blew into the station first, a tunnelshaped clot of air the exact length of the train behind it, hot from its own great compression and speed, whipping the litter up into a cloud,” writes Wray when describing a subway car pulling into a station. You can almost feel the wind in your face. In yet another instance, a cigarette wrapper “skittered up the platform, dancing past the bench coquettishly: a bashful totem.”

The book intersperses Will’s underground escapades with chapters that show Detective Lateef and Violet interacting with each other and trying to reach the troubled teen. Here too, Wray’s characters shine. One’s heart aches for Violet, an immigrant who has nobody but Will to cling to, and who worries she has smothered the boy beyond repair. “What’s it like to have a child, only one, and to feed that child all of your own old ambitions. It’s wrong for other parents, of course, but you feel different, free to indulge yourself, because your child is very close to perfect,” she rationalizes, “he takes over your life completely.

With Lowboy, John Wray has delivered an absolute tour-de-force. Yes, you might see the inevitable, shocking end hurtling full speed down at you, but really, by then, you are way too deep in this to get out of the way. As the book moves on—and the meds wear off—Lowboy’s voice slowly amps up, portraying in full energy, the sheer terror of a child who finds himself in a mind he cannot control and from which there is no escape.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 55 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (March 3, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on John Wray
EXTRAS: FSG page on Lowboy 

Gothamist interview with John Wray

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another one of our reviews for Lowboy 

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July 26, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Contemporary, Literary, Unique Narrative, y Award Winning Author

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