John Wray has established a significant critical reputation for exploring new territory in both content and style with each new book he writes. His first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep (2001), for example, focuses on a tortured love triangle on the eve of the Nazi occupation of Austria; his second book, Canaan’s Tongue (2005), explores the hold that a humbug preacher and outlaw slave trader has on his followers in Mississippi before and during the Civil War.
Part literary thriller and part compelling character study, Lowboy sets yet another new course for the author, who abandons historical material in his third novel in favor of contemporary experience. In this case, readers are swept along with the teenaged protagonist, whose escape from psychiatric care has set into motion a frantic effort to find him before he can harm himself and others. A major part of the novel’s appeal is the desire to find out what happens to Will Heller and those he encounters on his manic flight through the New York City subway system.
Just as compelling as the chase, however, is the empathy that the author engenders for his principal characters, especially the beautiful but schizophrenic Will. Indeed, reviewers have been unanimous in their praise for Wray’s ability to navigate the complexities of his main character’s “cramped and claustrophobic brain.” Narrated sometimes in the first person and sometimes in limited third person, the novel makes readers privy to Will’s visual and auditory hallucinations. His underground journey is marked by numerous “signs and tells,” and his skewed responses to his environment elevate the ordinary sights and sounds of urban mass transit into something extraordinary. While waiting on the platform between trains, for instance, Will tries to read the code implicit in the argon lights that appear to be “stuttering like pigeons”; he also tries to taste the “clot of air” that each passing train leaves in its wake, “hot from its own great compression and speed, whipping the litter up into a cloud.” Once aboard the next train, Will muses on the nature of each subway car as a “controlled environment,” an expression of “the designers’ fear”and Will’s paranoia as wellfor “no one sat with their back turned to anyone else.”
Willor Lowboy, as he was called in the hospitalis on a mission to save the world from global warming by losing his virginity. How he has made this bizarre connection offers further evidence of his psychiatric disorder; an avid reader, Will has conflated reports of the dire consequences of planetary climate change with Buddhist teaching that the world and the self are one. Thus, he comes to believe that if he can release his own vital heat through coitus, the world itself will cool down. “I read it in National Geographic,” Will offers as cockeyed evidence of the validity of his theory.
It is clear that the author has done his homework about the condition labeled paranoid schizophrenia, which, according to recent research, generally manifests itself in individuals in their twenties and rarely in someone as young as Will. The protagonist’s diagnosis dates, his mother tells Lateef, from four years earlier, when he was only twelve. This early onset of the disease makes the character’s situation all the more desperate and poignant, and a reader’s concern about his fate all the more intense. On his own, this “pale and fine-featured” adolescent may very well be an easy victim of urban crime and a danger to himself: Individuals with his condition have a higher suicide rate than do members of the general population.
To complicate matters even more, readers soon discover that Will may also be a serious threat to those around him. Prior to his hospitalization, he pushed a female friend, Emily Wallace, onto the subway tracks, and upon his escape, he chooses her to be the one to help him “open like a flower.” She eventually becomes his willing but generally unwitting fellow fugitive, drawn to Will because of his looks and because of a shared sense of alienation. In part, she views her dalliance with Will as an act of teenaged rebellion, as a means of further aggravating her already exasperated father.
The fact that there are eventually two young people on the runone endangered by the otherheightens the suspense. Wray further enriches the plot by establishing a complex dynamic between the two teenaged runaways and their two principal pursuers: Will’s mother and the detective assigned to the case. Indeed, Wray’s narrative strategy involves transitioning back and...
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