Miami Herald // Low Boy by John Wray

My review of John Wray’s excellent new novel appears in today’s Miami Herald.

Review | Mad teen’s subway solutions

LOWBOY. John Wray. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 258 pages. $25.
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, even though the story is in many ways a conventional one in which the hero of modest means sets out into the world with an enormous task, encounters a number of obstacles, comes to some new realization about his condition and finds a degree of redemption in the end.

What distinguishes Wray’s novel is the formal decision to tell his story from a perspective that closely mimics the paranoid-schizophrenia of his 16-year-old protagonist William Heller. Heller is as troubled as Ishmael (who went to sea in Moby-Dick, you will recall, as a “substitute for pistol and ball”), as precocious as Holden Caulfield, and as invisible to some extent as the unnamed, underground-dwelling narrator of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece.

Heller got the nickname Lowboy, in part, because of his fascination with the New York City subway system. He spends his days hurtling through the maze of tunnels. The story begins on a particular November day, one in which the world is going to end, thanks to global warming. William has come to believe that only a reduction in his own body temperature can prevent the Earth’s immediate destruction and that having sex is the only way he can cool down enough to prevent the imminent overheating of the world. To that end, he goes in search of his friend Emily.

The chapters alternate between his wayward adventures and his mother Violet’s efforts to find William before he can harm himself or others. William has a history of violence, including a previous run-in with Emily that didn’t end well and spent some time in an institution. “Big beautiful brownskinned nurses who blew kisses at you while they kicked your ass. What kind of school is this I said. What kind of study. It’s summerschool William they said. Take a look outside! I went to the window and saw high cottony clouds and yellow leaves and my own face and sailboats on the river. I saw everything I was supposed to see. I see everything I said to them.”

Precisely why Heller now prefers to be underground remains a mystery, though his mother believes it’s because that’s where he feels safest. Whatever the reason, Heller becomes a tragically believable character. His mental illness, which Wray renders with perfect precision, infects the reader’s thought processes for the duration of this fast-paced novel. The prose makes us feel the way Heller feels, and the boy’s schizophrenia also feels strangely familiar. Is he sitting in for our entire, short-attention-spanned society?

Wray’s genius as a storyteller lies in the fact that he recognizes that schizophrenia may well be the prevailing logic of the Twittered, Facebook-friended, RSS-fed culture around us. We can sympathize with Heller, and even love him, because he is all of us.