four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
By: 
John Wray
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0

A-LowboyJohn Wray, named in 2007 as one of Granta’s best American novelists under 35, is the author of Canaan’s Tongue, the story of a 19th-century slave trader, and the Whiting Award–winning The Right Hand of Sleep, set in World War I. Lowboy is Wray’s third novel.

The Story: Lowboy opens with the escape of the paranoid schizophrenic William Heller from a mental institution, where he is being held for attempted murder. Convinced that the end of the world is imminent (global warming is the culprit), the 16-year-old William—known as "Lowboy" both for his dour moods and his obsession with New York’s subway trains—sticks his head above ground long enough to realize that his place is, and has always been, in the city’s catacombs. Trailed by his beautiful mother, Violet, who may hold the key to his condition, and Ali Lateef, a missing-persons detective, Lowboy urgently crisscrosses the city in a last attempt to make order from the chaos of his life.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 258 pages. $25. ISBN: 0374194165

Miami Herald 4.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Andrew Ervin

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Wray’s third novel, Lowboy, is uncompromising, often gripping and generally excellent. … This is a meticulously constructed novel, immensely satisfying in the perfect, precise beat of its plot." Charles Bock

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
Though Wray’s careful shifts in perspective often turn Lowboy into a highbrow police procedural, with twists, escapes and plenty of selectively withheld information, they also underline an unequal balance of emotional power. … 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, the Tourette’s-driven murder mystery that effectively defined the DSM-IV noir." Akiva Gottlieb

New Yorker 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What is impressive about [Lowboy] is its control, and its humane comprehension of radical otherness. … Lowboy performs a strange two-step: whenever Will is at the center of the novel, the narration vigorously stretches itself; but the alternate chapters, in which Violet and Lateef give chase, squeeze the book back into conventionality." James Wood

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Lowboy is at its best at its most unflinching. Like Ken Kesey, Wray has a keen ear for the language of madness—the scripts, the shrinks, the straightjackets and the electric shocks." Matthew Shaer

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The writing is lovely, the first paragraph enticing enough to cause that jolt of adrenaline that tells the reader he or she is onto something really good. … Ultimately, though, the novel can’t hold up under the weight of [the main character’s] ravings." Nan Goldberg

Critical Summary

Like Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude), John Wray has a keen eye for the myriad, and often insidious, ways that our quick-cut culture negates the individual. In Lowboy, a narrative spanning less than a day, the author unblinkingly portrays the devastating effect of mental illness on one young man’s life; in the process, Wray offers an astute critique of a world where social networking implies, more often than not, anything but. As the New York Times points out, "It’s impossible to predict what will capture the fancy of whatever remains of the reading public." Any reading public that cares to discover a bit about itself and to read a fine, touching, and uncomfortably real story will be drawn to Lowboy, despite some complaints of stock characters and conventional plotting. John Wray’s literary star is the on the rise.