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
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.
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.)
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