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Lowboy: A Novel Hardcover – March 3, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, March 2009: I'm not the first and certainly won't be the last reader to herald Lowboy for the subtle homage it pays to one of the best-known heroes in 20th century fiction, or to envy and delight in its masterful vision of New York City as seen from its darkest, most primal places. What's most seductive for me about John Wray's third novel--and arguably the one that puts him squarely on the map alongside contemporary luminaries like Joseph O'Neill, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Diaz--is how skillfully it explores the mind's mysterious terrain. This isn't exactly uncharted land: John Wray's Will Heller--a.k.a. Lowboy--is a paranoid schizophrenic off his meds and on the lam, certain of both his own dysfunction and of the world's imminent collapse by way of global warming, but Wray handles that subtext delicately and is careful to make Will's mission to "cool down" and save the world feel single-minded without being moralistic. Wray invokes all the classic elements of a mystery in the telling, and that's what makes this novel such a searing read. As Will rides the subway in pursuit of a final solution to the crisis at hand, we meet (among others) Will's mother Violet, an Austrian by birth with an inscrutable intensity that gives the story a decidedly noir feel; Ali Lateef, the unflappable detective investigating Will's disappearance whose touch of brilliance always seems in danger of being snuffed out; and Emily Wallace, the young woman at the heart of Will's tragic odyssey. The novel moves seamlessly between Will's fits and starts below ground and Violet and Ali's equally staccato investigation of each other above. This kind of pacing is the stuff we crave (and we think you will, too)--the kind that draws you in so unawares that before you know it, it's past midnight and you're down to the last page. –-Anne Bartholomew

John Wray on Lowboy

John Wray Three years ago, not long after I'd begun Lowboy, I made a decision that--in retrospect--even I find slightly odd: to write as much of the novel as possible on the New York City subway. The reasons for this admittedly drastic step ranged from the practical (subway cars have no internet access, no cell phone reception, and next to no procrastination options) to the wildly romantic, if not outright ridiculous. Like some over-eager method actor, a part of me was convinced that I'd write about the subway more vividly and honestly if I immersed myself in it absolutely. Fully half of Lowboy's narrative takes place underground, much of it in the subway tunnels, so getting the look, smell, and feel of subterranean New York right was crucial to the book's success. It also happened to be cheaper than renting an office.

The challenges of my new workplace weren't the ones that I'd expected. I was amazed at how effectively I was able to tune out the commotion around me, simply by putting on headphones: a good playlist on my laptop was essential, but beyond that, as long as I avoided rush hour, staying focused presented no great problem. The seats in the older cars made my back hurt after a few hours, certain stretches of track in the outer boroughs were so rough that it was hard to type properly, and restrooms were few and far between, but I adjusted to those things in time. The more comfortable I got, however, the more my frustration grew, for the simple reason that the subway was starting to feel like my living room. I was becoming resistant to its strangeness: I was seeing it with the eyes of a commuter. Nothing could have been farther from the point of view of my protagonist, a sixteen-year-old schizophrenic boy, newly escaped from the hospital, to whom even the most familiar things feel alien. The harder I looked, the less I seemed to see.

I'm not sure what triggered the change that came a few weeks later, but I know that it came suddenly. I was riding the Coney Island-bound F in the early morning, staring blankly out the window at the tunnel racing past; I remember feeling bored and vaguely hungry. When I turned around, though, I seemed to be in a different car completely. For the first time, every feature of the interior had a clear purpose to me: the seats stopped short of the floor for ease of cleaning, the orange and brown tones were meant to encourage well-being, and the polka-dot pattern on the walls, which I'd never looked at closely, was in fact made up of the official seal of the state of New York, repeated countless times in brown and grey. The discovery made me a little paranoid--on the lookout, suddenly, for more signs of Big Brother's presence--which was just the state of mind I'd been pursuing. From then on, the novel all but wrote itself.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Wray's captivating third novel drifts between psychological realities while exploring the narrative poetics of schizophrenia. The story centers on Will Heller, a 16-year-old New Yorker who has stopped taking his antipsychotic medication and wandered away from the mental hospital into the subway tunnels believing that the world will end within a few hours and that only he can save it. It's a novel that defies easy categorization, although in one sense it's a mystery, as a detective, Lateef, is on the case, assisted by Will's troubled mother, Violet. As Lateef tracks Will and gains some startling insight into Violet, Wray deploys brilliant hallucinatory visuals, including chilling descriptions of the subway system and an imaginary river flowing beneath Manhattan. In his previous works, Wray has shown that he's not a stranger to dark themes, and with this tightly wound novel, he reaches new heights. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (March 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374194165
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374194161
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,205,196 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Dave Schwinghammer VINE VOICE on June 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It's inevitable that John Wray's LOWBOY be compared with Mark Haddon's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. The difference, it seems to me, is that Haddon had experience working with autistic children. I never got that sense with Wray's book.

A review on the back cover of LOWBOY refers to the main character, Will Heller, as "a hero as three-dimensional as any in recent fiction." Ironically, that's the problem I had with the book. All of the characters seemed flat to me, including Will. Most of the time, Will doesn't seem all that schizophrenic. Sure he tries to mate with a bag lady, and he has a delusion that if he has sex he can stop the destruction of the earth through global warming, but in other respects he doesn`t do that much except ride the subway and bump into denizens of the deep who aren`t that interesting either. Even his nickname, Lowboy, is a kind of furniture. Emily, his girlfriend, may have some emotional problems of her own. Will originally gets in trouble because she tried to hug him and he pushed her onto the subway tracks because he didn't like being touched. But she comes back for more, apparently because Will looks a lot like Brad Pitt. At one point she tells Will that he should never wear pants, but then she freaks out when he gets serious. The detective in the story, Ali Lateef, who is trying to track Will down, seems more interested in Will's mother, Violet. About the only surprise in the story is Violet's so-called secret.

The minor characters are even less interesting. Skull and Bones, Will's attendants before his escape onto the subway, are practically invisible. Heather Covington, the bag lady Will meets in the subway tunnels, is pretty much a stereotype.
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50 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Amber Pierce on March 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is just by far the novel of the year for me--profound and beautiful and edge-of-your-seat thrilling at the same time. Where did this John Wray come from? I hadn't heard about either of his other two novels, although the critics seem to have gone ga-ga over them, too. I can't gush over this book enough. I was so entertained and entranced reading it that at one point I didn't even realize I was crying. I just flipped over this thing. Did I mention that it's also really funny?
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Ronald Stainbrook on March 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Having stumbled upon this novel quite by accident, I was mesmerized by the story of a psychotic adolescent who has escaped from a mental institution and his mother's frantic efforts to save him or to save anyone whom he might harm in a story that covers just a little over 24 hours.

Many parts of the book are told through the paranoid schizophrenic eyes of the beautiful 16-year old boy, adding a great deal of realism to the tragic yet hopeful story. Wray has apparently accomplished a great deal of insight into the mind of paranoid schizophrenia as well as the mind of innocent youth throughout the world.

Woven into this thrilling story is the beautiful and enigmatic mother and the thoughtful and provocative detective she hires to catch the boy before he harms himself or someone in his way to accomplish what he must accomplish to save the world.

Reserve some time for this novel because once you start reading it, you won't be able to put it down.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By M. J. Cotner on March 5, 2010
Format: Paperback
I so wanted to love this book. I wanted it all the way to the end. And yet when I arrived my gut said, "I told you so."

There are so many things to recommend the novel, I'll list them before saying anything else. First of all, the writing is excellent. The characters are also fantastic; it's hard to say which I liked best. Wray's depiction of a mind in the grip of mental illness (particulars left unnamed to avoid spoilers) is impressive. And, finally, Wray paints the landscape underneath New York City as beautifully as does Woody Allen aboveground. Truly, he's made a valentine to the NYC subway system.

Unfortunately, the "big secret" revealed at the end was no surprise to me: the hints had felt so heavy-handed, I'd guessed it at least a third of the way through. In retrospect, then, the pace is annoyingly slow. Finally, Wray's choice for the protagonist's obsession is profoundly disappointing: it dates the novel in such a way that the obsession will soon acquire an interpretation that seems unintended. It already feels "so last decade"!

I do not like the fact that Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin: A Novel is listed close to _Lowboy_, because I think the former - while also a tribute to New York City - is a crown jewel of a novel.

All that said, if you like discovering talented new writers, this book might be for you. A very quick read, it will give you a taste of a new author whose work may be well worth pursuing.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Beverly Jackson VINE VOICE on August 4, 2009
Format: Hardcover
In John Wray's novel, Lowboy, William Heller, a paranoid schizophrenic teenager, has stopped taking his medication and has escaped from his school (asylum) into the New York subway system. William, also known as Lowboy, is on a mission to save the world from destruction which according to him is on a short timetable. Will has a plan but to fully execute it he needs to find the one girl that will "cool him down" and save the world from global warming.

The story is mainly narrated by Will, who in this case, tells it from the fugitive's point-of-view. Most of Will's journey takes place on the subway and in the tunnels, only going out of the subway system when absolutely necessary. The chapters narrated by Will takes the reader into the mysterious thinking of the brain of someone who is sinking deeper and deeper into mental illness. Mr. Wray has done a very good job of making Will a very likeable hero. The alternate chapters are narrated by a missing person's detective assigned to the case, Ali Lateef, who is accompanied by Will's mother, Violet Heller. As this is a different type of missing person case, Violet helps provide information to assist in finding Will before he becomes violent as the experts predict. These chapters have the feeling of a police procedural, as Ali races against time. But, as Ali puts the pieces of the puzzle together, he realizes that there is much more to Violet and her perceptions of the story than she is telling him and may not be the help that he needs.

This story is both tragic and, at times, almost comical as we get to see the world through Will's eyes.
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