Lowboy: A Novel Hardcover – Mar 3 2009
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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 maps the mind's mysterious terrain. This isn't exactly uncharted land: John Wray's Will Heller--a.k.a. Lowboy--is a paranoid schizophrenic who, certain of both his own dysfunction and of the world's imminent collapse by way of global warming, could easily remind you of Ken Kesey, 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 is less interested in Lowboy’s picaresque circuits than in his mental circuits, whose damaged condition is brilliantly, compassionately evoked in the novel . . . Wray is never boring, largely because he has an uncanny talent for ventriloquism, and he seems to know, with unerring authority, how to select and make eloquent the details of Lowboy’s illness . . . What is impressive about the book is its control, and its humane comprehension of radical otherness . . . Lowboy is exceptionally tender and acute . . . John Wray is a daring young writer.” —James Wood, The New Yorker
“John Wray captures Lowboy almost immediately and gives him to us in intense, sharp pages.” —Alan Cheuse, NPR
“Lowboy is a smart, moving thriller, and a deeply imaginative one, too . . . [The] hurtling plot makes it the sort of book you read in a few big gulps, but its complicated teen character—at once intensely familiar and completely foreign—sticks around for days after you’re done.” —Izzy Grinspan, Time Out New York
“A breathtaking journey.” —Cathleen Medwick, O, The Oprah Magazine
“It’s everything a solid book should be: a fast fun deranged grim thoughtful romp through the minds of a devastatingly nuanced cast of characters . . . The last 100 pages of Lowboy are a marvelous, unpredictable sprint. This is the sort of novel that you brew coffee at midnight to finish. It demands your attention, despite the duties of the next day. It demands the kind of singular purpose Wray might just be warning us about.” —Joshua Mohr, The Rumpus
“A mostly masterful fictional study of human relationships in the shadow of insanity . . . In Lowboy’s fragilely constructed, all-fantasies-realized universe, every chapter ends with a bang, and the final one is no exception.” —Todd Dills, Time Out Chicago
“You’ll tear through the pages . . . A lip-biting thriller to the finish.” —Sarah Z. Wexler, Marie Claire
“[Wray] succeeds with a brisk plot and odd moments of humor. The story’s final grimness is tough, but it’s hard not to admire this bullet train of a book for its chilling power.” —Stacey Levine, Bookforum
“Wray is an obviously gifted writer, who treatment of Will is a tour de force of empathy, style, and imagination.” —Booklist
“John Wray’s Lowboy is a psychotic, subterranean, environmentally conscious, coming-of-age novel. It is also an affecting and affectionate love letter to New York. Lowboy is John Wray at his highest.”—Nathan Englander, author of Ministry of Special Cases
“Through the windows of John Wray's rumbling express, we catch sight of the deep darkness that lives inside the human psyche. Lowboy is a riveting and disturbing ride, illuminating one adolescent boy's shadowy underground, and giving us glimpses of our own as well.” —Colson Whitehead, author of Apex Hides the Hurt
“America's most original young writer has given us a book for the ages. Compelling, compassionate, and deeply unsettling, Lowboy introduces us to the brilliant sixteen-year-old Will Heller, a hero as three-dimensional as any in recent fiction, a Holden Caulfield for our troubled times.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan
“Wray’s captivating third novel drifts between psychological realities while exploring the narrative poetics of schizophrenia. . . . 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.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Wray presents a powerful and vivid portrait of Will's mental state, believably entering into his apocalyptic vision of the world.” —Library Journal
“Lowboy sucks you into the tunnels under NY and doesn't let you go until its perfect ending. Wray effortlessly portrays the cracked and distorted mind of his teenage hero. What a beguiling novel.” —Tim Pears, author of In The Place of Fallen Leaves
“Comparisons to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye or Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower are inevitable.” —Karen E. Brooks-Reese, School Library Journal
“Lowboy is a brilliant and gusty performance . . . It expresses its meanings in hallucinated events that seem to vibrate on the page.” —Mark Shechner, The Buffalo News
“John Wray’s third novel, one of the most anticipated books of the spring, has the makings of an American classic. Lowboy also represents Wray’s arrival as a major author.” —Andrew Ervin, The Miami Herald
“A fast-paced thriller . . . This virtuosic novel . . . is a masterpiece of aural description.” —Laurence Lowe, GQ
“Lowboy is haunting and uncomfortable, in the best way possible—it’s a pleasure to read.” —Fernanda Diaz, Flavorwire
“John Wray displays an impressive command of both suspense and tragedy.” —The Week
“The book casts a spell . . .Wray’s prose . . . is full of dreamlike images and startling similes.” —Taylor Antrim, The Daily Beast
“The novel moves seamlessly . . . 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, Amazon.com
“[Wray’s] third novel, Lowboy, is his best yet . . . Lowboy is told in a series of impressionistic flashes . . . and it moves with extremely confident speed to its heart-wrenching conclusion.” —Steve Donoghue, The OLM Blog, Open Letters
“Wray’s writing is tremendously smart and perceptive.” —Alison Hallett, The Portland Mercury
“Occasionally comical and consistently tragic, Lowboy is an engaging novel with a difficult subject.” —Mark Flanagan, About.com
“[Lowboy is] truly remarkable!” —Leah Taylor, Flavorwire
“Wray’s breakthrough novel . . . will likely be filed alongside the work of his bestselling Brooklyn contemporaries. Lowboy’s meticulous mapping of metropolitan myth recalls Paul Auster’s City of Glass and nods to the genre tics of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn . . . This poetic, stirringly strange novel offers an empathic reminder that, for many, the light at the end of the tunnel can be taken for a harbinger of doom.” —Akiva Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times
“Wray captures Lowboy almost immediately and gives him to us in intense, sharp pages that burst in our minds as we read . . . When you’re reading Lowboy you know, in the hands of its talented young creator, that it’s certainly the best thing.” —Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune
“Strange and splendid . . . What makes Lowboy extraordinary is its rapt conviction, not the cool manipulation of plot devices.” —Craig Seligman, Bloomberg.com
“John Wray’s latest novel, Lowboy, is a compelling tale that captures the foreign internal and external landscapes of a teenager with mental illness . . . Wray depicts Will’s descent into both the subway system and mental illness in clear, glittering prose . . . John Wray’s writing itself is like a blessing, and reading Lowboy, while not a religious experience, is perhaps as close as a person can come to experiencing the mix of poignant and desperate emotions and actions that come together in a teenager with mental illness.”—Doug Robins, Sacramento Book Review
“John Wray’s prose is at once spare and powerful, comic and profound, and as his protagonist’s fate unfolds, the suspense rises until the very last line.” —Sandra Mangan, The Evening News
“Wray has created a novel that is rich in characters and insights. You may be able to finish it in half a day, but William’s view of the world will almost certainly stay with you for longer.” —Marcel Thee, Jarkarta Globe
“[Lowboy] is weird and horribly sad, but balanced and completely believable. [It] will leave a gnawing pain in your stomach, like hunger or fear or the feeling that he’s got it all right.” —Micah Ling, Keyhole
“Dizzyingly seductive . . . Making your central character deeply insane is, of course, a risky and ambitious trick, but Wray carries it off with a fluid, inventive style that rises at times to a frightening pitch.” —Michael Lindgren, The Washington Post
“Wray’s pacing is superb . . . [and his] writing shines . . . This is a fine novel by a talented writer.” —Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle
“Wray spins out an increasingly suspenseful, psychologically astute narrative, perfectly pitching the voice to accommodate each character’s particular motivations.” —Eric Liebetrau, Paste Magazine
“Lowboy is an incredibly competent novel from a young, clearly passionate writer . . . Wray deposits moments of exposition at key points in his apparent madcap narrative, showing the careful planning and loving consideration of a first-rate writing talent. His prose flies along with the unstoppable force of a subway train, but he can still make me pause and wring my heart out over poor Lowboy.” —Jillian J. Goodman, The Harvard Crimson
“John Wray handles it all masterfully in this odd story [that is] part sci-fi parable, part mental health drama, part love story.” —Ralph Greco, Jr., Short and Sweet NYC blog
Top Customer Reviews
There was also the subplot with Lowboy's mother and the detective who is helping her to find him. It was completely unnecessary and a bore.
Perhaps the book was well-researched and realistic, at least on the side of a teenage schizophrenic. I don't understand why a detective would be so preoccupied with finding him and spending days upon days with his mother.
As far as the teenage schizophrenic goes. I think Lowboy could have been more provocative. I never felt any sympathy for him. I thought he was just a yammering idiot who spoke a lot of nonsense and had deranegd theories about global warming. Perhaps that's what schizophrenics are like but I think there should have been more to the character than a textbook version of a teenage schizophrenic.
Having said that, one has to give John Wray a ton of credit for tackling such a complicated project as a novel. And certainly there are some great parts of the book that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The characters which include a teenage schizophrenic are probably too complex to be accurately portrayed through the written word. But, Wray makes up for it through his intricate details of the New York Subway system in which most of the book takes place.
Overall, I felt that John Wray did as much as he could given the complexity of the characters and story. I definitely look forward to reading more of his work in the future.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
A review on the back cover of LOWBOY refers to the main character, Will Heller, as "a hero as three-dimensional as any in recent fiction." Ironically, that's the problem I had with the book. All of the characters seemed flat to me, including Will. Most of the time, Will doesn't seem all that schizophrenic. Sure he tries to mate with a bag lady, and he has a delusion that if he has sex he can stop the destruction of the earth through global warming, but in other respects he doesn`t do that much except ride the subway and bump into denizens of the deep who aren`t that interesting either. Even his nickname, Lowboy, is a kind of furniture. Emily, his girlfriend, may have some emotional problems of her own. Will originally gets in trouble because she tried to hug him and he pushed her onto the subway tracks because he didn't like being touched. But she comes back for more, apparently because Will looks a lot like Brad Pitt. At one point she tells Will that he should never wear pants, but then she freaks out when he gets serious. The detective in the story, Ali Lateef, who is trying to track Will down, seems more interested in Will's mother, Violet. About the only surprise in the story is Violet's so-called secret.
The minor characters are even less interesting. Skull and Bones, Will's attendants before his escape onto the subway, are practically invisible. Heather Covington, the bag lady Will meets in the subway tunnels, is pretty much a stereotype.
I cannot think of one character I could identify with and that wasn't the case with Haddon's book. Christopher Boone inspires empathy; when Christopher was afraid, I was afraid. Mark Haddon put me in Christopher's shoes. That doesn't happen in Wray's book.
Many parts of the book are told through the paranoid schizophrenic eyes of the beautiful 16-year old boy, adding a great deal of realism to the tragic yet hopeful story. Wray has apparently accomplished a great deal of insight into the mind of paranoid schizophrenia as well as the mind of innocent youth throughout the world.
Woven into this thrilling story is the beautiful and enigmatic mother and the thoughtful and provocative detective she hires to catch the boy before he harms himself or someone in his way to accomplish what he must accomplish to save the world.
Reserve some time for this novel because once you start reading it, you won't be able to put it down.
There are so many things to recommend the novel, I'll list them before saying anything else. First of all, the writing is excellent. The characters are also fantastic; it's hard to say which I liked best. Wray's depiction of a mind in the grip of mental illness (particulars left unnamed to avoid spoilers) is impressive. And, finally, Wray paints the landscape underneath New York City as beautifully as does Woody Allen aboveground. Truly, he's made a valentine to the NYC subway system.
Unfortunately, the "big secret" revealed at the end was no surprise to me: the hints had felt so heavy-handed, I'd guessed it at least a third of the way through. In retrospect, then, the pace is annoyingly slow. Finally, Wray's choice for the protagonist's obsession is profoundly disappointing: it dates the novel in such a way that the obsession will soon acquire an interpretation that seems unintended. It already feels "so last decade"!
I do not like the fact that Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin: A Novel is listed close to _Lowboy_, because I think the former - while also a tribute to New York City - is a crown jewel of a novel.
All that said, if you like discovering talented new writers, this book might be for you. A very quick read, it will give you a taste of a new author whose work may be well worth pursuing.
The story is mainly narrated by Will, who in this case, tells it from the fugitive's point-of-view. Most of Will's journey takes place on the subway and in the tunnels, only going out of the subway system when absolutely necessary. The chapters narrated by Will takes the reader into the mysterious thinking of the brain of someone who is sinking deeper and deeper into mental illness. Mr. Wray has done a very good job of making Will a very likeable hero. The alternate chapters are narrated by a missing person's detective assigned to the case, Ali Lateef, who is accompanied by Will's mother, Violet Heller. As this is a different type of missing person case, Violet helps provide information to assist in finding Will before he becomes violent as the experts predict. These chapters have the feeling of a police procedural, as Ali races against time. But, as Ali puts the pieces of the puzzle together, he realizes that there is much more to Violet and her perceptions of the story than she is telling him and may not be the help that he needs.
This story is both tragic and, at times, almost comical as we get to see the world through Will's eyes. Will is aware of the medications leaving his system and from past experiences knows that others sometimes just do not hear him when he speaks, so he is relieved when others acknowledge him unaware that they are usually people who are also mentally ill. One of the most memorable scenes for me is when Will attempts to purchase cupcakes and the store clerks and Will could not effectively communicate with each other for what is a simple task for most of us.
This is a much needed story as mental illness is still a taboo subject in the United States and you will see that we have not made much progress besides making people who suffer from mental illness invisible when they make us uncomfortable. Once I started reading this story I could not put it down as I became engaged with the characters and I was riding the subway along with Will hoping that he would outwit the authorities. I recommend this book to readers who enjoy stories that allow them to explore topics from a different angle. Readers who are interested in the topic of mental illness will also enjoy this story.
Reviewed by Beverly
July 26, 2009