Don's Reviews > Lowboy

Lowboy by John Wray
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Mar 07, 2009

it was amazing
Read in March, 2009

(FROM MY BLOG): Walk along a street in downtown Seattle. You see them everywhere. Wild-eyed men and women. Dirty, dishevelled, mumbling to themselves or yelling at the universe. Crazy people, more like scary forces of nature than human beings. Beings we nervously evade as we see them approach.

Except, of course, they aren't non-human. John Wray's novel Lowboy shows us how much humanity schizophrenics do share with the rest of us --a story being perhaps the only way we are ever apt to experience that commonality, unless we actually have the nerve to sit down and talk to one.

Will Heller, who calls himself "Lowboy," is a highly intelligent, unusually attractive 16-year-old who possesses a detailed knowledge of the New York subway system. He's a man on a mission, a mission to save the planet from global warming, and he has less than 24 hours to do it. To accomplish his mission, it is essential -- for reasons that make a vague sort of sense, given his assumptions -- that he lose his virginity. He is a paranoid schizophrenic, and he is on the loose from his psychiatric facility. He has stopped taking his medications.

It takes us some time to understand even this much about Lowboy, because the story is told primarily from Lowboy's own, confused point of view. Later chapters offer us other aspects of the story from the points of view of his immigrant mother "Violet," who has her own problems, and of police detective Ali Lateef who is working with her to locate the boy.

Lowboy is acutely observant of everything about him. (After finishing the book, I'll never forget that the dual-tone chime you hear on the subway, warning that the doors are about to close, is C-sharp to A.) His illness causes him to find significance in insignificant occurrences, much as Greeks and Romans did in the flights of birds or the appearance of animal entrails. He knows that he is ill. He understands that the voices he hears -- sometimes loud, sometimes as a murmur, sometimes sensed only as the indistinct roaring of a dynamo -- are part of his illness. He realizes that his symptoms increase and decrease over time. In fact, at the age of 12, when his symptoms first began but were still controllable, he read everything he could find in the library on the subject of schizophrenia. But he doesn't -- he can't -- understand enough.

The story reads partly as an adventure. We don't quite understand Lowboy's quest, but we want him to succeed. His quest takes place largely within the dark, subterranean realm of the subway system, itself a metaphor for a certain twisted, noisy, and confusing set of limitations on reality. The book also reads as a detective novel, as Lateef attempts to untangle confusing clues he obtains from Lowboy's mother, psychiatrist, and one-time girlfriend, and to locate and apprehend the boy before he injures either himself or another person. Again the story reads at times as a peculiar story of romance, the same detective finding himself falling in love with the boy's mother, for reasons he doesn't understand.

But mostly, the novel is an immersion in the mind of a young man who is precociously bright and likeable and in a sense idealistic, but whose perspective on the world is far different from our own -- a kid who thinks deeply and observes much that we would miss, but who overlooks simple meanings and conclusions that we would find obvious.

The ending is exciting and unexpected. This book is unquestionably one where you want to learn how it ends yourself -- not hear it from a friend or read it in a review.

Schizophrenia, some say, should be considered not a disease but simply an alternative way of viewing reality. After reading Lowboy, none of us would voluntarily subject ourselves to that experience. But we understand better the peculiar logic -- and even, possibly, strange beauty -- of the thoughts circling within the confused minds of those crazy guys we see on the street.
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Bravenewworker Great observations...the writer definitely took a lot of care to create the world Lowboy inhabits.


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