Lowboy explores the modern cityscape, schizophrenia

By Steve Sedlak

John Wray’s third and most recent novel “Lowboy” is the story of Will Heller, a 16 year-old kid with schizophrenia. Fictional works inspired by the unique experience of the world filtered through a mental condition are nothing new. For example, take the wildly popular “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” or older still, the 1920 German expressionist film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” But Wray’s novel manipulates this filter in a way that produces an exquisite urban poetry. It is the poetry of an urban landscape unseen by those surrounding the protagonist, but is nonetheless apparent to the reader of “Lowboy” itself. Will Heller is the everyman teenage boy in most respects, and the parallels drawn by critics between “Lowboy” and Salinger’s coming of age classic “Catcher in the Rye” are perfectly tenable. Will is convinced that if he doesn’t lose his virginity by the end of the day, the world will end in the most horrible of ways – but it will in fact be global warming’s fault. He senses that he must cool his body and lose the “degrees” by having sex for the first time. In doing so, Will knows he can save the world from its certain demise.

It is with this urgency that he escapes the grasp of caretakers and plunges into the almost mythically modernist landscape of the New York subway system. Will sees invisible trains rushing into stations and crack-addicts wearing shopping-bag socks. He ventures above ground into hip thrift stores and back underground into mysteriously abandoned subway stations.

The world through Will’s eyes is full of desire, but also intensely anxiety-provoking. The secrecy of the city and its catacombs are as mentally stimulating now as they have ever been – especially as the artifacts of a peculiarly American archaeology peek out from the New York cityscape.

Wray shows a unique sensitivity to the American cityscape – one that reveals it to be just as strange and alienating today as it was to Americans centuries earlier. There is a modernist aesthetic to the novel, which works well considering the naiveté of the book’s protagonist. And yet the lyric quality of the prose gives a concrete voice to the experiences common to everyday urban life.

Wray’s decision to build the story along two narrative tracks also suggests a reinterpretation of the American cityscape and its manifestations in fiction. Half of “Lowboy” is in essence a good old-fashioned detective novel. Will’s mother, Violet, teams up with missing-persons specialist Ali Lateef to search New York City for Violet’s missing son. They lose their tenuous grip on him – both literally and metaphorically – at the last moment.

Perhaps there are more similarities between “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Lowboy” than there might appear to be at first glance. But if I were to more fully explain myself, I would ruin the story. “Lowboy” clocks in at only 272 pages and is currently only available in the hardcover format.