John Wray’s Lowboy, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2009, is his third novel. The story masterfully focuses on the dark, primal, and underground places in New York City. Will Heller is Lowboy, a paranoid schizophrenic who has stopped taking his medication. Heller is on a mission to save the world from global warming.
Heller rides the subway to find a solution to the world’s problems, which sets other characters into motion in the narrative. The detective that investigates Heller’s disappearance is Ali Lateef. Emily Wallace is a young woman who plays a central part in Heller’s mission. Lowboy’s mother Violet is a beautiful and yet complex woman.
The chapters in the novel alternate between Lowboy’s narrative and the detective. Ali Lateef often struggles with Heller’s mother. They both work with two parallel emergencies: as soon as Heller comes off of his medications, Heller is in danger and all of the people around Heller are in danger, too. To find him, Ali and Violet must work together.
John Wray shares in an interview that he wrote much of the novel on the New York City subway. Like a method actor, he had hoped to develop a more vivid account of what Heller might find if he himself immersed himself into subterranean New York. Wray also displays a poetry in his description of New York. He describes pushing ghost trains of compressed air, the Helvetica type on the outside, and the bright orange cars. Heller sees these cars and compares them to his grandfather’s house, like the color of wax fruit.
Wray also studied schizophrenia for the novel’s development. He talked to psychiatrists and consulted psychiatric manuals. He even observed schizophrenics on the streets and within institutions.
Critics thoroughly enjoy Wray’s ability to pull you completely into the connections and the tale’s complexity as it unfolds. Wray’s sentences exhibit a rhythm that resembles the zig and zag of a subway, and also the thought process of Heller off of his medication. The drama is woven so that the reader is pulled along and concerned about Heller’s safety.