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Book Review: Lowboy

Lowboy
By John Wray
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009

In a 2008 issue of Esquire, author John Wray commented, “You know, my dream, even when I started out, was to be to fiction something like Stanley Kubrick was to movies.” What he meant was that he wanted to be an artist whose work isn’t easily classified, but even so, there’s enough wrong with such an aspiration to make a reader wary when approaching Wray’s work. The author is nearly 40 but looks 20, and he came to writing only about ten years ago, after stints doing a great many other things; dilettantism is to be suspected.

Still, his first book, The Right Hand of Sleep, was impeccably crafted, and although his second, Canaan’s Tongue, was perhaps more florid and less controlled than its author intended, it, too, was deeply memorable. Wray has a weakness for bagatelle plotting, but he takes a care with words that borders on the obsessive, and his imagery is surgically precise. He’s a slow, meticulous writer, and it shows in the work.

His third novel, Lowboy, is his best yet. It’s the story of young, off-his-meds William Heller, who’s escaped from the institute where he’s been committed and is hiding out on the New York City subway system he’s studied and loves. In his mind, he’s on a mission: to save the world from fiery destruction, he must have sex with a woman in the next ten hours. He’s being pursued by his mother and Dectective Lateef, both of whom are as complex and repressed as he is, although on the “normal” side of decorum. At one point Det. Lateef, the novel’s standout character, muses on the similarities between mother (“Everything she does is in spite of herself”) and son:

He remembered how the boy had looked running. From the back the resemblance to his mother had been absolute. He’d moved differently, of course – in a loose, disjointed way that called attention to his sickness – but that had only emphasized their sameness. His sickness somehow made him more like her. There was a mystery there that Lateef could not enter.

Because young William (who’s either called “Lowboy” because of his love for the subway or because he gets “moody” – or perhaps neither reason) spends so much time underground, Lowboy brims with information about the New York transit system, but all of it is recast both by William’s paranoia and Wray’s masterfully sharpened outlook:

The interior of the [subway] car was waterproof, the better to be hosed down in case of bloodshed. And the seats were arranged not for maximum efficiency, not to seat the greatest number of people comfortably and safely, but to express the designers’ fear with perfect clarity. No one sat with their back turned to anyone else.

Lowboy is told in a series of impressionistic flashes, most not more than a few paragraphs long, and it moves with extremely confident speed to its heart-wrenching conclusion. The book’s occasional tendencies toward predictable Hollywood formulae (Kubrick indeed) are more than offset by the understated brilliance of its narrative. Every one of the blowhards who used John Updike’s death as an occasion to wail “Where are our new great voices?” should read this book. And you should too.

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