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.
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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