Lowboy

by John Wray

Lowboy by John Wray
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2009, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2010, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Derek Brown

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BookBrowse Review

A fearless exploration of youth, sex, and violence in contemporary America, seen through one boy's haunting and extraordinary vision

Will Heller is not exactly your typical sixteen-year-old boy, and Lowboy is not exactly your typical bildungsroman. The story begins in New York City, but it doesn't begin by describing the streets, the masses of pedestrian traffic, or the shadows of skyscrapers; it begins in the tunnels beneath it. Will Heller has a penchant for the subway, and his peerless understanding of it has earned him the name "Lowboy." However, his understanding of the world around him - though penetrating and keenly perceptive - is tinged by an unfortunate complication: he's a paranoid schizophrenic. Driven on a quest to save the world, Will believes the world's salvation rests upon his discovery of a willing girl. This girl is the ingenuous Emily Wallace: unaware of his condition, she was his former best friend and only companion before an unfortunate and rather fierce event separated them. While Will is on his own search to find Emily, his mother, Violet Heller, and a seasoned missing persons specialist named Ali Lateef, are on a desperate search to find him. While Violet and the detective seem to always be on his heels, Will's unpredictable -- though bizarrely logical -- behavior seems to prevent his capture. Violet slowly divulges her own troubling secrets as the quests of both parties run parallel to one another, and as each track is explored, we learn about each character's story and subsequently why they are who they are.

The allure of Lowboy lies not only in its fascinating portrayal of an adolescent's struggle with his own sanity, but also in how his insanity affords him a view of the world that is at once bleak, wondrous, and comical. But I also feel the real merit is not just in the worldview of Will Heller; it is also the perspectives of his pursuers and the pursued that make this novel first-rate. This complex tale is about more than just one boy's search to discover his own answers; it contains a whole array of themes from issues of identity to questioning an individual's ability to be "normal."

John Wray demonstrates his literary talents by seamlessly shifting from a medicated and numbed view of the world to one filled with all the irrationalities (though seemingly rational to the main character) that mental pathos can provide. Lowboy is an enthralling tale about love, loss, and just about everything in between, wrapped in the trappings of a tragedy. I have always felt that the mark of a truly great book is a story that is difficult to forget and leaves you thinking. Two weeks after finishing, this gripping achievement still has me thinking every time I step foot on the subway.

Lowboy is a dark and enlivening exploration of the mind of a teenager woefully afflicted by mental illness, the free-spirited and unaware companion that he seeks, the passion and mystery of a mother earnestly searching for him, and the stoic and pensive detective attempting to thwart him while understanding the mess of it all. You will find yourself getting pulled in deeper with every chapter, resonating with each of characters more and more until you realize that you're at the end of the line and you long for it to begin all over again.

Reviewed by Derek Brown

This review was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the February 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

Beyond the Book

About the Author
John Wray was born in Washington D.C in 1971 to an American father and Austrian mother. His first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep won him a Whiting Writer's Award at age 30, an honor bestowed upon such notables as David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann. His second novel, Canaan's Tongue, earned him a position on the list of Granta's best novelists under 35. In addition to his writing, John Wray was also the front man of Marmalade, a Brooklyn-based pop band that released an album, Beautiful Soup, in 2003. Wray wrote most of the first draft of Lowboy while riding back and forth on various NYC subway trains - about five days a week for six months, in his estimation.

A Precarious Publicist
The talented John Wray has proven that his creativity is not limited to the printed word. In lieu of a traditional bookstore reading, Wray boarded the Brooklyn-bound L-train with a megaphone and video camera in tow, and proceeded to read segments of Lowboy aloud to a mix of fans and casual passengers. The "guests" got off at Bedford Avenue, and headed en masse to a bar for beer and music. He also filmed a video of subway passengers reading aloud from the book.

After the publication of Canaan's Tongue in 2005, Wray embarked on a 600-mile raft tour on the Mississippi River. It started with a $5,200 check from Knopf, and four stops and two weeks later, the homemade barge, consisting of Home Depot lumber, barrels from New Jersey, and a 15-horsepower outboard, made port in New Orleans. The crew consisted of two friends, a photographer, and, of course, the trailblazer himself. One, a merchant marine and open water veteran known for his usual outings as a yacht captain for the well-to-do, was the skipper. Another was an antique book dealer from Brooklyn and personal friend of the author. The third crewmember was a New York Times photographer that provided some interesting photographs of the expedition. Though the publicity stunt seemed to garner very little remuneration, it nonetheless was an original attempt at shattering an area of publishing that has become rather lackluster.

Regardless of the turnout at a local bookstore along the Mississippi or winning over a crowd of indifferent passengers, John Wray's promotional ventures have breathed new life into the stodgy business of book sales, and I, for one, was quite taken by his attempts and intend to purchase his first two books not only because of his bravado but because his writing is just that good.

Reviewed by Derek Brown

This review was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the February 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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